It's Memorial Day weekend, unofficial start of the summer recreation season when Mom and Dad pile the kiddies and the dog in the family van and head to the mountains or the lake for a little fun in the sun.
But this year's summer tourist season begins on an uneasy note for businesses that depend on the deep pockets of their visitors.
It begins with the shaky economy. In a time when inflation and home foreclosures are high and the jobless rate is inching upward, leisure travel tends to take a back seat to more important financial concerns.
And then there are the ever-spiraling gasoline prices. Even families who can fit travel into their budget are less likely to take longer trips when a gallon of gas is near $4 and rising. Many folks will spend their vacation time and money closer to home, if they spend anything at all.
This is bad news to Georgia in general and Northeast Georgia in particular. Our area thrives on tourism; the hospitality business has been one of the state economy's fastest growing sectors in recent years.
Despite the challenges, though, the state's tourism industry is holding its own. Last year, the state drew some 61.7 million domestic visitors; 51 percent of those were from out of state and 74 percent were traveling for leisure, not on business. Around 819,000 Georgians worked in the tourism industry last year, which earned some $846.8 million, about $160 million of that in the Northeast Georgia Mountains region. Both revenue and jobs are expected to go up statewide this year.
Our region's biggest tourist attraction remains Lake Lanier. Some 7.8 million visitors made their way to the lake last year, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake.
But since last year's Memorial Day weekend, the lake level has dropped about 10 feet, which is still five feet higher than the all-time low reached last November. The long-range forecast for another dry summer has lakeside businesses, boaters and residents concerned that the worst is yet to come.
The prospect of Lake Lanier showing even more mud on its banks than last year won't put smiles on anyone's face, nor cash in anyone's pockets. But short of an above-average summer of rainfall, and perhaps a hurricane or two, there isn't much anyone can do about it.
To date, the government entities in charge of trying to preserve our water resources have spent most of their energy fighting among themselves. The corps cut back on water releases to keep the lake's levels from dropping any faster. But that sparked cries of protest from the governors of Alabama and Florida, who want that water flowing downriver to their communities to feed their power plants and oyster beds. That battle is headed to the courts for what likely will be a lengthy, expensive showdown.
The state of Georgia has only been able to make a small dent in the crisis. Gov. Sonny Perdue was finally able to get the corps to see things his way and cut back on the releases. The legislature also passed an overdue bill to create more reservoirs that should, in the very long run, take some of the pressure off Lanier and the Chattahoochee River to supply water.
But precious time and political capital also was wasted on trying to steal water from the Tennessee River by redrawing the states' boundary to its early 19th century configuration. It made for some giggles in the news and in both state capitols, but doesn't seem to be a serious solution.
So if nature doesn't cooperate and our government leaders can't do much else, it falls to us. Georgians already have made valiant efforts to conserve water. Municipalities and government agencies were ordered to cut back on water use by the governor, and nearly all have complied. Many residents have limited outdoor watering and held off washing their cars, all while devising new ways to recycle the water they must use.
In some cases, unfortunately, their reward has been a hike in water rates. Cities such as Gainesville that depend on water revenue have been forced to jack up the costs to make up the difference. We win, we lose; we save water, as directed, but still pay more. Yet perhaps higher prices might encourage us to use even less.
Spring rains helped keep the lake levels steady in recent months, but forecasters tell us they won't last. Thus we can't let false optimism keep us from maintaining a serious approach to the ongoing drought.
This weekend, the waves will lap on the shores and the parks will be full. Lake Lanier Islands Resort is open for business, as are the marinas and an increasing number of boat ramps. The sounds of boat motors and sight of skiers and anglers will remind everyone that the lake is open for business.
Those sights and sounds might not last all summer, however, so let's hope visitors can enjoy the lake before its waters recede. Let's also not wait until the dog days to continue our personal efforts to save water, one household at a time. If we start conserving now before the summer heat bakes our lakes and streams, we might be able to delay the worst a little longer.
By all means, let's get out and enjoy Lake Lanier, while at the same time doing everything within our power to save its water for our critical needs, and for the Memorial Day weekends to come.