Savannah Riverwalk by Plant Riverside (Siobhan Egan/Paprika Southern)
Savannah Riverwalk by Plant Riverside (Siobhan Egan/Paprika Southern)

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This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

In 2020, Macon officials did something unprecedented – they cancelled the city’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Losing its biggest event was a huge loss for Macon but Gary Wheat, president and CEO of Visit Macon, says he’s “optimistic” the festival will be able to return in some capacity this year. Organizers have outdoor events scheduled daily during the second half of March.

“March is always a big month for us and last year it hit us hard when we had to cancel our Cherry Blossom Festival,” he said. “It’s a very important part of our destination.”

Immediate future remains uncertain

Tourism experts are used to planning ahead, but as the COVID-19 pandemic slogs on, Georgia officials say the near future remains uncertain.

“In our industry we’re always looking two [or] three years out to plan,” Wheat said. “To be real honest with you, I can’t see past next month. It’s been a month-to-month process for us.”

Still, there’s cautious optimism throughout the state that the warmer months ahead and ongoing efforts to boost the COVID vaccine rollout will bring back travelers and conventioneers to heal the industries that have been severely depleted by the lack of travel during the pandemic.

When the pandemic made its public arrival in Georgia last March, Visit Macon had to furlough its part-time staff from both of its visitor centers. But Wheat says an increase in business helped bring everyone back to work.

“We were fortunate [that] beginning in June, we have seen a continual steady uptick as far as visitation, hotel stays, and things of that nature,” he said. “We are not at 2019 numbers now, however we are continuing to still see positive gains.”

Wheat credits attractions such as Amerson River Park and Ocmulgee Park with attracting visitors who are anxious to safely socialize outdoors. And while business travel has halted in Georgia and across the country, Wheat says medical staff looking for a place to quarantine away from their families have stayed in local hotels.

Truck drivers continue to log miles along I-75 and I-16, busy highways that run through Macon. The state DOT also is completing a massive construction project that employs a big workforce that needs places to eat and sleep.

“Obviously, a lot of those are subcontractors that come in for the week and stay in our hotel,” Wheat said.

Numbers down across the state

Still, throughout Georgia, hotel room sales were down 26.5% in 2020, painful but not as bad as national sales which were down 35.5%.

“We fared better than [other] states and I’d like to believe that’s a tribute to Governor (Brian) Kemp’s leadership and our ability to keep the state open,” Explore Georgia’s deputy commissioner Mark Jaronski said.

In 2019, Georgia tourism generated about $69 billion dollars but last year that spending dipped to about $12 billion. In addition to resulting in a loss of more than $642 million in state and local taxes, more than 53,000 jobs were eliminated in leisure and hospitality. But, Jaronski says other measures have him “cautiously optimistic” about travel this year.

“When we looked at consumer research among travelers nationwide and here more locally, the desire to travel is as strong as it’s ever been,” he said.

During the past six months, Explore Georgia’s website has seen some of its highest website traffic ever. People are dreaming, and perhaps even planning, to travel, even in a time of pandemic uncertainty.

Tybee Island challenged by beach visitors

An influx of tourists, of course, comes with its own set of challenges in the pandemic. Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions called on the governor to close Georgia’s beaches last spring in an effort to minimize the public health risks of COVID-19. The beaches remained open throughout the spring and summer months, with more than 30,000 people visiting Tybee Island on a peak day in July.

City officials have limited authority to require people to wear masks in public, but Sessions said there were signs throughout the beaches encouraging visitors to wear protective face coverings. Tybee Island and its two unincorporated areas have reported about 166 positive cases of COVID since the pandemic began, but Sessions warns these numbers might understate the true spread of the virus from beachgoers.

“There’s no way of really capturing true numbers at a beach or when you’re in a community where people are here one day and gone the next,” she said.

While Kemp didn’t close the beaches as she’d hoped, Sessions does credit the governor with sending employees from the Georgia State Patrol and Georgia Department of Natural Resources to aid in public safety. Sessions said her staff honored employees from both departments with certificates and thanked the governor last fall.

With widespread COVID vaccination and herd immunity many months away, efforts such as these will likely have to be repeated this year when travel is expected to pick up. In a recent study by The American Hotel and Lodging Association, 56% of Americans said they were likely to travel for leisure in 2021. 

Savannah loses business, conference travelers

In addition to the overall lack of leisure travel, the hospitality business in cities like Atlanta and Savannah have been hurt by the lack of business travel in the past year. The lodging association doesn’t project it to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023 or 2024. Of the frequent business travelers who responded to the survey, 29% said they expected to attend a conference in the first six months of this year and 36% expected to attend a conference in the second half of 2021. Still, 20% of participants said they don’t expect to travel for business for more than a year.

“Unlike the leisure side, which has been limping along, the meetings and convention side is almost at a standstill,” Jaronski said. “We really need to work hard to help bring that back sooner than 2024. It will be a widespread effort. It’s going to require not just marketing, but operations and public health, and so on and so forth.”

Georgia lawmakers are setting aside millions of dollars in state spending intended to shore up the financial damage inflicted on the state’s hospitality industry by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, Georgia senators increased the state’s supplement for the state fairgrounds in Perry from $1.75 million to $3 million. They also added $3 million to support the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta’s convention district. The sprawling facility has been converted into a makeshift medical center during the pandemic when hospitalization rates surged.

In January, Gov. Kemp announced his budget proposal for the rest of the year includes $1 million for the Georgia Department of Economic Development to promote tourism throughout the state. Jaronski said the additional funding would go towards “trying to drive visitation to the many regions of this state and help restore hospitality.”

If approved by lawmakers, Jaronski said Explore Georgia will make 50% available to tourism bureaus throughout the state, including the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Tourism Association for the City of Savannah.

“Their funding is derived from hotel tax so after the last year that we’ve been through, many of their budgets have been severely impacted,” he said.

While the deputy commissioner said they’re still working out details for how the money will be distributed, they plan to set up a matching grant formula.

Even with the millions of dollars more in state support, though, Jaronski emphasizes that Georgia will still have to compete with neighboring states for tourists as people gradually begin to feel comfortable with traveling again.

“Every state in the country, particularly our southern states are going after the same travelers that we are,” Jaronski said. “It will be a very competitive environment, but we stand to compete well, because we have great tourism assets across the state, there’s a lot of really great things to do.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Jewel Wicker is an Atlanta-based reporter who has written for publications such as Wall Street Journal Magazine, GQ, NPR and Atlanta magazine. She previously worked as a staff reporter for the Atlanta...