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DNR to push Georgia ecotourism
Agency is using marketing to bring in new visitors, commissioner says
Visitors to Unicoi State Park walk the path to Anna Ruby Falls during the autumn season last year. - photo by Tom Reed

Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Clark said he is ready to step up the agency’s tourism efforts in the state.

Clark spoke Tuesday at the Governors Conference on Tourism about the department’s plan to market Georgia’s parks and historic sites to new demographics.

“I don’t think Department of Natural Resources has traditionally been considered a partner in tourism in this state,” Clark said. “I think people see us as facility managers but not so much as destinations, and that’s definitely an image we’re going to seek to change.”

Clark said though state cuts have been hard on the department, they have started planning marketing strategies for the future.

“We’re really looking forward right now. It’s going to be a few more, maybe 18 more months at very tough belt tightening but we’ve got to look down the road at how we do business and who we do business with, and that’s how we’re spending our time right now,” Clark said.

DNR has been the victim of some heavier state cuts this year. The General Assembly cut its budget by almost 40 percent and revenues are down about 24 percent, Clark said.

He said the department has assessed its programs as it scaled back operations this year.

“We’re looking at a new operating model in a lot of ways,” Clark said. “It’s making us look kind of critically at ourselves — are we really offering the type of experience that families want? I think in some areas we’re seeing that they are and in some areas we’re finding that we really need to improve.”

Clark said the cuts especially have been hard for the historic sites, which have reduced days of operation.

“We’ve had over 150 layoffs; we have furloughs; we’ve drastically reduced our operating budget. But our goal through all of this has been keep our parks and our historic sites open for Georgia families whether it’s maybe limited, or maybe some of the amenities like our swimming pools aren’t open, but at least our gates are open certain days of the week and people can still come in and have that experience,” Clark said.

He hopes to refocus the department’s efforts to promote ecotourism and heritage tourism to capitalize on popular outdoor activities such as mountain biking and kayaking.

“We have all these assets out there but we haven’t been marketing them. We’ve not been telling people about them,” Clark said.

“We’ve done three new programs in the last year that we’re really excited about that we think will lead us down that road. We did a Canyon Climbers Club where we challenge people to go out and hike all of our canyons in the state and get a T-shirt. We did new mountain bike trails at a lot of our state parks, so if you ride all of our trails with our Muddy Spokes Club you get that T-shirt, and then we started the Paddlers Club.”

The department also is starting to do more Internet campaigns to promote the activities.

Clark said Georgia is underrated in the tourism industry.

“I use as an example North Carolina. People always talk about North Carolina as being a destination for ecotourism,” Clark said.

“Well, they’ve been marketing themselves that way and investing in their infrastructure for 30 years. We’ve got more parks, more diversity, more outdoor opportunities than they do and much more pristine coast, more miles of river, but yet we’ve never marketed it.”

Heritage tourism is another resource that can be tapped.

“We have more African-American heritage sites in this state than any other state out there and, yet, we do very little to market those sites. ... That’s a demographic we’ve traditionally not focused on,” Clark said.

A new state park also is in the works for the Gainesville area.

“We just started the design work on Don Carter state park, which will be up on Lake Lanier, and it’s part of two different efforts there,” Clark said. “One is to develop the blueway on the Chattahoochee from North Georgia all the way through Atlanta with stops and kayak inputs and outputs and fishing ramps as well as camp sites, so a key one for us has been Don Carter. It’s also part of our effort to kind of circle Atlanta with parks so that we get folks in the inner city out into what we call transitional parks so they learn about our parks system and then they go on out into other parks in the state. So Don Carter is going to serve an important role going forward.”

Construction is expected to start in the spring.

Clark said he hopes to get more money for tourism initiatives from the state next year.

“We’re going to be going to the General Assembly this year and talking to them about the type of investments in our parks that can return a profit, like trail systems, like camp sites, like boat ramps,” Clark said. “We’re trying to make the business case that this is good business for Georgia and it’s good for the communities we’re in, and it also helps the overall image of the state.”