Originally created 05/07/02

Georgia tourism figures diverge



BUFORD - The good news from the state's latest report on tourism is that even in economic hard times, visitors are spending increasing amounts of money in Georgia.

However, the bad news for most of the state is that though tourism revenue is up dramatically in coastal Georgia and metro Atlanta, it's dropped in nearly every other region.

Augusta, Athens and Rome saw marginal declines of less than 4 percent because of the economic slowdown, said Janis Cannon, Georgia deputy commissioner of tourism.

"I noticed a decline in visitation numbers," said Mary Beth Justus, the director of the Athens Welcome Center. "It's been a little slower."

Ms. Cannon said Augusta-Richmond County's 2-percent decline is partly because of lackluster support from area businesses and residents.

"One entity can't do it alone," she said. "It goes back to the community. I don't think they have a buy-in from everyone."

Between July 2000 and June 2001, visitor spending in Georgia grew to $16.1 billion, a gain of 0.9 percent. Tourism grew 7.6 percent the previous year.

Yet the most recent growth wasn't shared equally across the state.

Among Georgia's 159 counties, 108 saw tourist expenditures decline. By contrast, only 22 counties' tourism revenues waned during the previous year.

The report also showed that the number of workers employed by tourism dropped 2.3 percent - more than 4,700 lost jobs.

The loss of tourist money was most widespread in the southwestern and central parts of the state.

Meanwhile, Chatham County, which includes Savannah, saw its tourists spend nearly 8 percent more than they did in fiscal year 2000, shelling out more than a billion dollars.

Down the coast, Glynn County, the home of Brunswick and St. Simons Island, experienced a 5.4 percent growth, coming in at $733.9 million.

Hospitality officials along Georgia's coast attributed their success in the face of a recession to Southerners' love of the beach and other longtime vacation traditions.

"The golfers are still coming," said Vicki Bell, who works for the Brunswick-Golden Isles Visitors Bureau.

Ms. Cannon praised the Savannah area as a model of how a region can work together to cultivate business during economic hard times.

"It's not just the tourism community," she said. "It's the residents of Savannah who understand the importance of tourism. That just shows what you can do when the whole community pulls together."

The state report, prepared independently by a Maine research firm, examines only what tourists spent during the 2000-01 fiscal year.

It does not take into account the economic tailspin that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ms. Cannon said.

Since then, Georgia's tourism officials have focused on attracting in-state visitors and tourists who live within driving distance.

"You don't have to travel to another state to experience culture and history," said Gary Womack, the owner of Tours by BJ, which operates coach tours in Atlanta and Savannah.

Gov. Roy Barnes secured a special million-dollar funding infusion in the 2002 budget for the tourism department to advertise the state to Southerners. A series of radio and television ads has aired since January, promoting the variety of attractions throughout the state. And, in honor of National Tourism Week, which began Saturday, tourism workers are playing host to events throughout the state.

The campaign appears to be paying off. Phone and Internet requests for tourism information are up 129 percent compared with last year, Ms. Cannon said.

"Tourism is on the rise," she said. "I just can't say enough about it."

TOURISM SPENDING:

Here are the tourism expenditures by county during fiscal year 2001, which ran from July 2000 through June 2001. (All monetary figures are in millions.)

MAJOR CITIES:

COUNTY/1999-2000/2000-2001/PERCENT CHANGE

DEKALB (Decatur)/$1,309.3/$1,320.1/0.8/

FULTON (Atlanta)/$4,400.9/$4,417.7/0.4/

CLARKE (Athens)/$146.4/$144.0/-1.6/

RICHMOND (Augusta)/$368.6/$361.3/-2.0/

CHATHAM (Savannah)/$940.2/$1,014.3/7.9/

GLYNN (Brunswick)/$696.1/$733.9/5.4/

BIBB (Macon)/$293.4/$295.3/0.6/

AUGUSTA AREA:

COUNTY/1999-2000/2000-2001/PERCENT CHANGE/

BURKE/$14.9/$14.9/0.2/

COLUMBIA/$57.4/$58.5/1.9/

GLASCOCK/$1.3/$1.2/-4.6/

JEFFERSON/$10.4/$10.3/-0.1/

LINCOLN/$12.7/$12.7/.0.8/

McDUFFIE/$27.1/$30.7/13.1/

RICHMOND/$368.6/$361.3/-2.0/

TALIAFERRO/$1.7/$1.6/-8.3/

WARREN/$5.8/$4.5/-22.4/

WILKES/$11.2/$10.5/-6.8/

Source: Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism