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Tumbling tourism: Travel destinations try to lure winter visitors

POSTED: February 1, 2009 12:05 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Dahlonega's Gold Museum in the old Lumpkin County Courthouse sits in the center of downtown Dahlonega, surrounded by various shops and restaurants that rely on tourism dollars to survive.

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The cold weather and gray skies of winter don’t inspire many people to leave home. But deals available at nearby travel destinations could change their minds.

Around the country, businesses are scrambling to lure visitors during an especially hard winter. January and February are traditionally slow months in the travel industry, but with the economy in a recession, this year is even worse.

Callaway Gardens went so far as to offer free admission through Feb. 28 to attract visitors during the slow season. Many Northeast Georgia destinations also are putting low prices and package deals on the table.

Cindy Williams, president of the Blairsville-Union County Chamber of Commerce, said she has seen more businesses teaming up for package deals to draw visitors to the North Georgia mountains.

"We’re really encouraging it more and more," Williams said. "It’s partnerships between our lodging and our attractions."

Williams said such offers include a stay at a mountain cabin that includes horseback riding.

Williams said October is typically the most popular season as visitors flock to see the changing leaves, but she thinks winter can be a great time, too.

"You can get this elaborate mountain cabin, sit by the fire, it’s a neat thing to do," Williams said. "Now’s a great time to travel."

William said a big selling point for traveling to North Georgia is how economical it is. Hiking, boating and enjoying the outdoors all are free, she said.

Kevin Langston, assistant commissioner for tourism at the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said travel revenues were down in 2008.

"For the year 2008, overall tourism lodging revenues, which are a pretty good proxy for the whole tourism industry, were down 4.4 percent for the year," Langston said.

Many other states in the region have seen revenue downfalls around 4 percent as well, Langston said.

Statewide, travel packages have been popular this winter.

"We’re seeing an increased interest in trying to use special deals to draw a few more travelers in," Langston said. "We do see a lot attractions and hotels offering great rates right now."

And though Langston said fewer visitors are coming to Georgia from around the country, the state is getting a higher number of international travelers.

"We’re seeing a lot of interest from international travelers still," he said. "We’re still seeing good interest from the U.K. and from Germany. Even though the dollar is appreciating against those currencies, they’re still wanting to travel and the Southeast is an affordable destination for them. So folks that might have gone to New York and Boston are instead headed down to the South so that’s good news for us."

"We’re also seeing very good interest from China. Our first leisure group tour from China just left from Hartsfield (Friday)."

Some hotels, like the Helendorf River Inn in Helen, typically drop rates during the offseason. Winter prices at the Helendorf are nearly half the rates offered during Oktoberfest in the fall.

"Our rates are much lower than summer or October," said Barbara Gay, co-owner and manager of the inn. "We feel like people are getting a good deal. We bring them down to the lowest possible rate."

A standard room at the Helendorf costs $54 a night for a weekend, with a $30 discount on the final night of a three-night stay. Compare that to summer weekend rates, which average about $94 a night, or during Oktoberfest, when rooms peak at $114 a night.

"We’ve really knocked them off in the hopes people will find they have enough disposable income," Gay said.

Mary Ann Knight, manager of the Dahlonega Convention and Visitors Bureau, said January has brought less traffic than usual to the town, but more than she would have expected with the economy in such bad shape.

"The count’s been off, a little," Knight said. "But we’ve done well this winter."

The bureau’s strategy to lure more visitors has been increasing advertising in magazines that circulate statewide.

Knight said one of the reasons winter is hard is because few visitors make extended stays.

"We didn’t have a lot of overnighters but a lot of day trips," Knight said.

Knight said she hopes the Celtic Festival in March will bring more visitors to Dahlonega.

"We started that last year just to bring people to town in the month of March," Knight said. "There’s a lot of Celtic heritage here."

Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said several recent conventions have boosted the number of winter visitors and brought in much-needed tourist dollars.

"In Hall County just in the month of January, we’ve had the women’s ODP Soccer, which is a huge exhibition," Dickson said. "It’s an Olympic development program, and we had soccer players from all over the country here for that. And we had the Southeast Region’s City Clerks Conference. ... and out at Lanier Speedway we just had two back-to-back events."

With Valentine’s Day two weeks away, many North Georgia destinations are hoping for a small spike in cabin rentals and romantic weekend getaways.

Dawson County is offering a free way for couples to celebrate. Cathy Brooks, government and community affairs representative for Dawson County, said the recently renovated historic courthouse will be open for weddings and vow renewals.

New Chief Magistrate Jennifer Thurmond came up with the idea as a way to give something back to the public.

"This is something we really wanted to do for the people in the area. We’ve never done anything like this before," Brooks said. "With so many people not having special things right now due to the economy, this gives us a way to extend something back to them."

The Dawson County Courthouse is the oldest working courthouse in Georgia, and the historic site will be decorated for the occasion.

"We can still do things and make them special even when we’re on a budget," Brooks said. "They can stay here and have their wedding free, and we’re also doing vow renewal ceremonies, which is also free."



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