Georgia’s tourism industry, which has been hit somewhat by the pandemic, is gearing up for a record summer.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is expected to handle about 2.1 million passengers during the Memorial Day holiday period, which begins Thursday and runs through Wednesday. This is up from about 2 million travelers during the same period last year.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines expects to carry about 2.8 million passengers over Memorial Day weekend, up 17% from 2022. The projected average of 500,000 daily passengers is expected to exceed the number of pre-pandemic holiday weekend travelers recorded in 2019.
“This summer’s leisure travel will be on record,” said Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association. “Looking back at 2019, we are again hitting those numbers and in some cases even surpassing them.”
In fact, Georgia’s tourism industry has remained relatively strong throughout the pandemic. In the early stages of the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak, the State Department of Economic Development (DED) reported nearly 151.8 million visitors, up from 150.9 million in 2019 before the pandemic. .
In 2021, visitor numbers will increase again, reaching nearly 160 million. Also in the same year, the state’s tourism industry equaled $4.2 billion in state and local tax revenue in 2019. The state has yet to release figures for 2022.
Tourism industry officials credited Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision not to impose a state shutdown during the pandemic as helping to sustain visitor numbers, especially among leisure travelers.
William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB), said, “Georgia remained open during the pandemic, so when the convention business started to return, Atlanta had a competitive edge. I stood at the “The Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau sales team had a great year in 2022, with the highest lead volume since the pandemic began.”
The ACVB last month reported a provisional occupancy rate of 70% for hotels in the city of Atlanta, the highest since February 2020, the month before the coronavirus outbreak hit Georgia. Hotel occupancy at the end of 2022 was 60%, up 50% from the end of the previous year.
“The potential demand for travel remains strong and we can definitely see it here in Atlanta,” Pate said.
Still, Kemp decided to allocate $5.8 million from the federal pandemic relief fund to Explore Georgia, the DED’s tourism arm, in 2021. The agency used the funds to facilitate overnight stays and day trips within and within Georgia, and to compensate for lost business due to meetings, conventions, and international travelers.
One tourism segment that has exploded during the pandemic has been visits to state parks. During a period when public health officials were advising people not to congregate in indoor spaces, state park visitors were able to enjoy camping and social distancing at the same time.
Prior to 2020, parks were attracting 10 to 11 million annual visitors, according to Kim Hatcher, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Parks, Recreation, and Historic Sites Division. After that, it is said that the number increased rapidly to 14 million. She said visitor numbers this year are expected to be slightly below that peak.
As domestic travel rises, state tourism promotion officials are working to spur a recovery in convention business and international travel. To that end, Explore Georgia leads a statewide delegation of tourism industry executives to his two largest travel trade shows.
DED Chief Marketing Officer Mark Jaronski said the outlook for tourism for the rest of the year is good despite rising prices.
“The desire to travel outweighs concerns about inflation and macroeconomic factors,” he said. “With low unemployment and lower gasoline prices than a year ago, demand is expected to continue to grow during the peak summer travel season.”
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