TOURISM DRIVES STATE ECON­OMY TO NEW HEIGHTS

Iconic venues & at­trac­tions have trans­formed Ge­or­gia into a lead­ing des­ti­na­tion for trav­el­ers

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When the At­lanta Fal­cons de­feated the Green Bay Pack­ers in the first ever reg­u­lar NFL game at the $1.5 bil­lion Mercedes-benz Sta­dium this Septem­ber, it was not only sports fans in Ge­or­gia who were cel­e­brat­ing.

“The Mercedes-benz Sta­dium has cre­ated a lot of ex­cite­ment about At­lanta, and we are al­ready start­ing to see a great re­turn on our in­vest­ment,” says Wil­liam Pate, Pres­i­dent and CEO of the At­lanta Con­ven­tion & Vis­i­tors Bu­reau (ACVB). “It is go­ing to pull more peo­ple into our city, cre­ate more busi­ness for us and drive em­ploy­ment num­bers even higher.”

The spec­tac­u­lar sta­dium, with a re­tractable roof that closes in just 12 min­utes, has be­come the lat­est sym­bol of At­lanta’s emer­gence as a sport­ing and cul­tural pow­er­house, one which is draw­ing in­creas­ing num­bers of vis­i­tors from across the USA and beyond.

In 2016, Ge­or­gia wel­comed a record-break­ing 105 mil­lion vis­i­tors, up 3% from the pre­vi­ous year, while the state’s tourism in­dus­try gen­er­ated $61.1 bil­lion in sales, up 3.5%. Tourism is now the fifth largest in­dus­try in the state, sup­port­ing the em­ploy­ment of some 450,000 Ge­or­gians.

Last year, al­most half of vis­i­tors to Ge­or­gia, or 52 mil­lion peo­ple, made their way to At­lanta. Pate says it should not be too long be­fore that fig­ure reaches 60 mil­lion, driven the Mercedes-benz Sta­dium and by the ex­pan­sion of ex­ist­ing fa­cil­i­ties in­clud­ing the 3.9 mil­lion-square­foot Ge­or­gia World Con­gress Cen­ter (GWCC), which in 2016 hosted 523 events and wel­comed more than 2.7 mil­lion vis­i­tors.

“At­lanta has a lot of mo­men­tum and there are many con­ven­tions that haven’t been to At­lanta in 20 or 30 years that are now in­ter­ested in com­ing,” Pate says. “We are blessed with a large ho­tel port­fo­lio of al­most 100,000 rooms in the metro area, in­clud­ing 12,000 rooms within walk­ing dis­tance of the con­ven­tion cen­ter.”

Busi­ness travel is one of the ma­jor driv­ers of eco­nomic growth in the city. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey com­mis­sioned by event man­age­ment soft­ware provider Cvent, At­lanta is now the fourth most pop­u­lar city for con­ven­tions in the USA. With 80% of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion un­der a two-hour flight away, a walk­a­ble con­ven­tion district, award-win­ning restau­rants and shop­ping op­tions in Buck­head, plus the cel­e­brated Mid­town arts district, the Ge­or­gian cap­i­tal draws busi­ness trav­el­ers from across the na­tion.

“At­lanta has been very for­tu­nate that there have been cor­po­ra­tions and in­di­vid­u­als that have been will­ing to com­mit their own re­sources to build at­trac­tions that are close to the Con­gress Cen­ter,” says Frank Poe, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of the Ge­or­gia World Con­gress Cen­ter Author­ity. “Our venues, our at­trac­tions and our con­nec­tiv­ity give us a unique en­vi­ron­ment that a lot of cities can’t com­pete with.”

Some of the city’s prime tourism sights in­clude the Col­lege Foot­ball Hall of Fame, the World of Coca-cola, and the Na­tional Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights, as well as the Ge­or­gia Aquar­ium, which in 2016 recorded its sec­ond high­est ever num­ber of an­nual vis­i­tors, at more than 2.45 mil­lion peo­ple.

Al­ready the largest aquar­ium in the US, Ge­or­gia Aquar­ium is con­tin­u­ing to ex­pand new ex­hibits and add more species. In 2018, the venue will open a space for puffins, fol­lowed by King Pen­guins, an at­trac­tive pen­guin from the South At­lantic which can grow al­most four-foot high. By the end of 2020, re­veals Mike Leven, Chair­man and CEO of Ge­or­gia Aquar­ium, the at­trac­tion aims to de­but a $100 mil­lion ex­hibit of sharks, which may in­clude the chance to dive with the fear­some crea­tures in cages. “Sharks are beau­ti­ful fish and bring­ing them to the Aquar­ium is only go­ing to help in­crease our vol­umes of re­peat vis­i­tors,” Leven says.

Sa­van­nah shines in the spot­light as Hol­ly­wood falls for the Peach State’s charms

It is not only the state cap­i­tal that is reap­ing the re­wards of the con­tin­u­ing resur­gence in tourism. Last year, the cob­ble­stone streets of the his­toric city of Sa­van­nah, the old­est city in Ge­or­gia, wel­comed 13.8 mil­lion vis­i­tors from all over the coun­try and beyond, spend­ing al­most $3 bil­lion on goods and ser­vices. A reg­u­lar mem­ber of Top 10 lists of Amer­i­can tourist des­ti­na­tions, Sa­van­nah’s com­bi­na­tion of classic south­ern charm and hos­pi­tal­ity with Old World ar­chi­tec­ture, a vi­brant arts scene, and world-class restau­rants and ho­tels has an ir­re­sistible ap­peal to new gen­er­a­tions of vis­i­tors.

“Sa­van­nah is a com­pletely un­ex­pected, au­then­tic and evoca­tive ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Joseph Marinelli, Pres­i­dent of Visit Sa­van­nah. “We work hard to keep the his­toric at­mos­phere, but and we’re not afraid to em­brace the hip and the cool and the vi­brancy of a small city.”

Founded in 1733, and with its tallest build­ing just five sto­ries high, some of Sa­van­nah’s mul­ti­ple at­trac­tions in­clude trol­ley tours and river­boat cruises, 30-acre Forsyth Park, the his­toric city mar­ket, and the bustling River Street water­front district. River Street is cur­rently un­der­go­ing re­vi­tal­iza­tion works that are adding new restau­rants, ho­tels and of­fices to this al­ready buzzing neigh­bor­hood. At the west end of River Street, de­vel­op­ers are turn­ing the for­mer power plant into a mixed-use de­vel­op­ment that will in­clude a 419room Mar­riott ho­tel. “The whole river­front will be trans­formed,” Marinelli says. “It is go­ing to pro­vide the im­pe­tus for the next gen­er­a­tion of vis­i­tors to come to Sa­van­nah.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the city is one of the most filmed and pho­tographed in the US. The Sa­van­nah His­tory Mu­seum is the proud home to the bench where At­lanta Belt­line multi-use trails, Mercedes-benz Sta­dium, Mercer Wil­liams House, Sa­van­nah Tom Hanks, as For­rest Gump, sat with his box of choco­lates on Chippewa Square; the square it­self is a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for film and his­tory buffs. Ge­or­gia has a long his­tory of host­ing classic film and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tions, such as Driv­ing Miss Daisy and tele­vi­sion show The Dukes of Haz­zard. More re­cently, the launch of a tax in­cen­tive and sub­sidy pro­gram has seen the state be­come one of the most pop­u­lar lo­ca­tions in the US for pro­duc­ers, with 320 fea­ture and TV pro­duc­tions tak­ing place here in 2016. Ac­cord­ing to Gover­nor Deal, those pro­duc­tions had a to­tal eco­nomic im­pact of $9.5 bil­lion —and an even greater im­pact is ex­pected in 2017, which Deal has des­ig­nated as the Year of Ge­or­gia Film.

As well as the rev­enue brought in by pro­duc­tions of Mar­vel su­per­hero fran­chises and cult fa­vorites such as the Hunger Games and The Walk­ing Dead, the films have gen­er­ated re­cur­ring in­come for Ge­or­gia as tourists from as far afield as Ice­land and Ger­many come to see where the ac­tion took place. “Some of th­ese movies and shows have a huge in­ter­na­tional fan base,” says Lee Thomas, Deputy Com­mis­sioner of the Ge­or­gia Film, Mu­sic and Dig­i­tal En­ter­tain­ment Of­fice. “Kids have been com­ing here in droves.”

Movies shot in Ge­or­gia also serve as an un­beat­able show­case to the world of the state’s nat­u­ral and cul­tural di­ver­sity, from the end­less beaches of the At­lantic coast­line and the rugged moun­tains of the high coun­try to the charms of colo­nial Sa­van­nah and the cul­tural and sport­ing venues of fast­grow­ing At­lanta.

“Ge­or­gia is fa­mous for its air­port and its busi­ness travel as­sets, but we are also a fan­tas­tic tourism des­ti­na­tion,” says Kevin Langston, Deputy Com­mis­sioner for Tourism at the Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment. “In the last decade we have built a crit­i­cal mass that will sur­prise a lot of peo­ple who haven’t been here for a while.”

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