TOURISM DRIVES STATE ECONOMY TO NEW HEIGHTS
Iconic venues & attractions have transformed Georgia into a leading destination for travelers
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.”