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Please, come and visit: Tourist sites hope Georgians come despite gas prices, low lake levels
Visitors to Helen tube down the Chattahoochee River during a recent holiday weekend at the North Georgia town. Towns across the region that depend upon tourism revenue are hoping higher gas prices and a lower Lake Lanier don’t scare off visitors. - photo by FILE

Kay Mathena believes gas topping $4 a gallon could present an opportunity for tourism in Helen.

"We’ve got 4 million people in Atlanta and every survey says that they are taking shorter, three-day, four-day or weekend trips and are staying within two to three hours of home," said Mathena, executive director of the Helen Chamber of Commerce. "That’s right in our bailiwick."

By mid-week, more than half of the motel rooms in Helen were booked for the weekend and Mathena said that is an indicator that most will be full for the holiday.

"We may have a few rooms for people who make a last-minute decision," she said.

The same is true at Lake Lanier Islands, where the reservations started coming in mid-week, according to Grier Todd, chief operating officer for the resort.

"We’re anticipating a good weekend," Todd said. "The weather is supposed to be good and our Beach & WaterPark will be open."

Todd said tee-times quickly were filling up at the PineIsle golf course after a promotional e-mail was sent to golfers.

Memorial Day is the start of the major tourism season in North Georgia. While the mountains have their highest visitation during the fall leaf season, the return of warm weather brings outdoor enthusiasts to the region.

Tourism is big business in Georgia and, in 2007, contributed $846 million to the state’s economy.

But Stefanie Paupeck, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said one part of the state’s tourism effort has been to get Georgians to visit in their own backyard.

"We’re constantly marketing what we have to the Georgia audience," Paupeck said. "A lot of people in Georgia need to discover the unexpected. Most people don’t know that we have the largest kangaroo population outside of Australia in Dawsonville."

She said Georgia has great treasures throughout the state.

"The German history and heritage in Helen is a huge draw. Our history in Savannah is also a huge draw. Our job is to make sure people know about them, but also go out and see them."

For Todd, Memorial Day also marks the unofficial opening of the resort’s newly renovated Emerald Pointe Resort. The 18-month renovation has transformed the contemporary style hotel into a more rustic lodge, with exposed timbers and room furnishings that would be typically found in a western national park lodge.

Nearing completion are six lake front villas, which can accommodate larger family groups under one roof.

In Helen, the summer season kicks off in mid-June when the Festhalle will feature performances of Bavarian music Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.

Further north, the mountain towns of Hiawassee and Blairsville are also anxious for their share of the tourism dollars.

Cheryl Smith, regional tourism representative for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said tourist-dependent businesses are optimistic.

"Lake Chatuge is at full pool and everyone there is hopeful," Smith said. "People work hard and deserve a break and hopefully they will take it here in Northeast Georgia."