Why? Foreign tourists spend more money and stay longer while on trips, said Kevin Langston, the deputy commissioner of tourism at the state agency.
“People ask why we bother with the international market when our budget is so tight,” he said. “I get the best return on an international dollar than any other. It is the same thing with heritage and cultural travelers. They also stay longer and spend more.”
Another trend leading the way in attracting tourists to Georgia, Langston said, is the burgeoning film and television industry, because viewers want to see where they made Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Walking Dead.
Langston was the key speaker at the CSRA Regional Leadership Forum held at Belle Meade Country Club, attended by those in leadership classes through their respective counties. Attendees came from Aiken County, North Augusta, Columbia County, Lincoln County, Augusta, McDuffie County, Warren County and Burke County.
The Georgia tourism division also released 2013 data Wednesday touting $53.6 billion in direct and indirect economic impact. The impact is up 4.5 percent from 2012, according to the U.S. Travel Association and Tourism Economics.
Elizabeth Vance, executive director of Thomson-McDuffie County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she was impressed with the number of film and television companies operating in Georgia.
“The film industry has really taken over. Georgia has become the Hollywood of the East Coast,” she said.
Langston said as long as the movie industry tax credit is available, it will continue to drive tourism. There was early apprehension as to whether attracting so many movies and TV shows was sustainable, he said.
“Now that we have 11 different companies committed to building production studios in Georgia, people who are starting to make those kinds of investments, you can be pretty sure that it is going to be around for awhile,” Langston said.
“The big one,” he said, is Pinewood Studios in Fayette County, the production company known for Harry Potter and James Bond films.
Langston told the forum that the agency is launching a new Web site and is heavily involved in social media. It is trying to present Georgia in different ways, including tapping into the “what’s local” trend of telling people where locals go for food and entertainment.
“Having a strong presence on the Web is critical to the state and having Augusta highly visible. We’re feeding all the content they need to make that successful,” said Barry White, the executive director of the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Responding to a question, Langston said high speed rail would help the state’s tourism, especially with international travelers accustomed to using high speed rail.
“After surpassing $50 billion in 2012, we are now building on that momentum as Georgia continues to attract more visitors year over year,” said Chris Carr, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “The impact of the industry goes beyond the visitors themselves – the tourism industry sustained more than 411,000 jobs directly or indirectly, making up 10.2 percent of all jobs in the state.”
In 2013, visitor spending generated $2.8 billion in state and local tax revenue in Georgia.