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As the calendar flips, the days get shorter and the weather gets cooler, Northeast Georgia is beginning to put on its best face for company.
Fall is peak tourism time in our part of the state, when folks from all over visit for the breathtaking scenery and a healthy sample of mountain culture.
It begins this weekend with the Petit Le Mans road race at Road Atlanta, which has become a huge international event in just 13 years. This weekend, some 100,000 visitors to the area are expected to leave some $10 million behind. Hotel rooms and restaurants are overflowing during a time when any extra business is welcome.
That's just the start of things. A handful of other fall events in the area this weekend, including the Big Apple Festival in Cornelia and the ongoing Oktoberfest in Helen, will continue to draw visitors to our area. Next week, Gainesville's Mule Camp Market will take its place in the festival calendar, to be followed by Gold Rush Days, the Mountain Moonshine Festival and numerous other events in our neighboring towns.
And it's more than just the festivals that gets the cash registers ringing. The rise of agritourism, a new industry unto itself, keeps tourists flowing to mountain communities to sip wines at our regional vineyards, wander through corn mazes and rumble along on hay rides. Some 167,000 visitors to these sites spend more than $13.4 million each year.
In the weeks to come, the leaves will begin to turn into brilliant reds, oranges and yellows and bring thousands more up the highways from Atlanta and beyond to glimpse nature at its most colorful. To help them along the way, Georgia's state parks have launched the annual Leaf Watch website at georgiastateparks.org/leafwatch to help guide visitors to the prime locations and offer tips on other things to do in the area.
Clearly, tourism has become one of the key industries in our region. Lake Lanier brings in some 8 million visitors a year for boating, swimming, fishing and other activities. Add the fall traffic from Atlanta and elsewhere in the fall and you're looking at a major economic force.
That's understandable. We live in the most beautiful area known to mankind - in our humble opinion - and it's only natural that we share it with those who spend much of their time stuck in city traffic and eyeballing views of suburban sprawl and strip malls. The allure of the mountains, the lake and the beauty of nature are our best calling card, and millions answer each year.
It already has been a good year for local tourism. The full pool lake level on Lanier brought back visitors over the spring and summer as businesses around the lake reported a strong year. The FLW Outdoors Forrest Wood Cup bass tournament in August lured thousands of folks to the area and they're still coming.
During a struggling economy, North Georgia's bounty has even more to offer. You don't need to drain the kids' college funds to spend a weekend browsing through mountain crafts or enjoying some bluegrass music. Everything is a short drive away and well within a family's budget in a time when that condo on the beach or cabin in the Smokies might be considered too extravagant.
The "staycation" trend has been a boost to local communities as Atlanta's 5 million or so residents spend more time and money here. Gainesville realtor and economic forecaster Frank Norton Jr. says tourism is one of the benchmarks to our area's overall economic recovery.
And there's something for everyone. Hiking and camping in our state parks in the mountains as the fall color bursts forth. Cruising on Lanier and other area lakes without the hot sun beating down. Communities offering their own special blend of arts, craft, music, food and history.
Yet our region's celebration of its culture goes beyond just earning some folding money. There's a sincere pride in each town's festival as it embraces its roots. Appalachian life is uniquely American, with sights and sounds different from any other. It's only fitting that we share it with those who feel its nostalgic tug. That pride is evident at every festival and in every hamlet that provides a slice of mountain living for all five senses.
You see it in the potters and artisans who gratefully lug their wares from town to town for each event, their handcrafted trinkets reflecting the joy of creation you don't get from a mass-produced item at a big-box store. You hear it in the rhythms of the banjo and dulcimer strummed with precision by musicians who take us back to a simpler time with a sound so pure it goes right to the heart. You smell it in the homemade candles, you taste it in the fried pies and barbecue, you feel it in the buttery soft quilts.
From the most skilled craftspeople to the guy who sells "boil'd p-nuts" out of a tin washpan, those who welcome visitors to our slice of heaven on earth reflect the love of mountain folklore that keeps people coming back every year.
Let's continue to welcome our visitors with a hospitable smile and a "y'all come back now" to show everyone why Northeast Georgia is a great place to live and visit as we share with them the glorious piece of this world we enjoy each day.