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Our Views: Tourism dollars fuel Ga. economy
Fall is prime time for visitors, pointing out how vital they are to our region, state
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

As Labor Day weekend approaches, the heat and humidity are easing up a bit, the kids are back in school and we prepare for the rites of autumn.

For some, that means football games, bonfires, sweaters and cider. But for many businesses in Northeast Georgia, it’s show time.

Tourism is a huge producer of capital and jobs in our region, and no time of the year lures more leaf-peeping visitors than the colorful days of fall.

We celebrate the arrival of the equinox and all that entails in our annual fall leisure guide, Harvest, which you’ll find inside today’s paper. It includes stories about some of the key attractions our area offers, including scenic mountain views, Appalachian music, wine-growing vineyards and corn mazes, plus a full calendar of events throughout the region.

That unique blend of cultural identity and natural beauty has made Northeast Georgia into a prime destination for many. Towns like Helen, Dahlonega, Cornelia, Clayton, Blairsville and Hiawassee hang their hats on luring deep-pocketed travelers to their festivals, shops, hotels and restaurants.

And there’s a lot of money to be made in those bags of boiled peanuts, candied apples and homemade crafts. The tourism industry fills state coffers with some $45 billion per year, including $2.4 billion in state and local taxes, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which manages the www.exploregeorgia.org website.

Some 391,000 Georgians earn their living in the tourism trade, the fifth largest industry employer in the state, some 10.4 percent of all jobs.

Like most industries, tourism took a hit during the economic downturn of the last four years, with many families giving up vacations or cutting back in order to save money. Roller-coaster fuel prices haven’t helped, either, leading many folks cutting their drives shorter when pump costs nudge up near $4 a gallon.

In spite of that, the state continues to reap the benefit of tourism dollars, and the industry has recovered 98 percent of those losses since 2010. Its effect on the state’s gross domestic product has increased by 8.2 percent in recent years.

Yet some feel the state could do more to promote its attractions. PolitiFact recently checked a claim by state Rep. Ron Stephens that Georgia lags behind other Southern states in investing money in tourism, though such spending has increased slightly in recent years.

Data show that Georgia’s $2 million spent on tourism promotion ranked next to last in the region, according to U.S. Travel Association data. The state ranked last in spending in the South on a per capita basis ($0.26 per person) with barely one-tenth of 1 percent of its general fund budget spent on advertising itself as a vacation site.

Of course, tough economic times have led to cutbacks in all areas, and tourism spending is among them. The fact that Georgia still gets that much bang for the buck tells us just how vital the industry is to our state and how tourists continue to journey here for all we have to offer.

And as with some other expenditures, a dollar spent promoting our state’s many wonders could earn a hundredfold in return. That’s why it’s worth considering a boost to that funding when state revenues allow that luxury.

Unfortunately, former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s fizzled “Go Fish” program was a multimillion-dollar boondoggle, particularly during a time when state funds were cut for more vital services like education and transportation. When it was ridiculed as a prime example of wasteful spending, some leaders may have balked at the idea of promoting tourism in general with extra funds.

But the overall benefit of singing our praises to the nation and world remains valid. We all see TV and print ads touting the natural and man-made delights of other states, some of which have only a fraction of what Georgia has to offer.

Ours is one of only a handful of places in the nation where visitors can bask at the seashore, hike in the mountains or take in the varied sights of a major cosmopolitan city without crossing the state line. Our historic sites celebrate the Civil War, civil rights and our role as a cultural center for music and literature, the home state of Ray Charles and the Allman Brothers, Joel Chandler Harris and Margaret Mitchell. We brag of major pro and college sports teams and events, museums and art galleries, but also pristine rivers and lakes to attract nature lovers.

Just in our backyard, we have Lake Lanier, the Appalachian mountains and all the hardwoods glowing red, yellow and orange that anyone could ever want to see. It’s a special time of year full of sights, sounds and flavors that no other place can match.

This Labor Day and beyond, let’s find time to explore our state’s special places and welcome those from outside our area who come to do the same. They keep our area thriving and will help spread the word to those who will come afterward.

Regional events