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Drought, low lake can't keep folks from fall fun
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It would seem that as the dog days of summer blend into fall, the news for area tourism has been mostly bad in recent weeks.

Lake Lanier continues to fall, down some 12 feet from where it should be. Marinas are pulling boats out of the water before they bottom out, and anglers are having trouble finding a working ramp from which to launch their boats.There is legitimate concern about the lake's long-term ability to draw tourists in the future if there isn't enough water to cover the shoreline. Plans for renovating Lake Lanier Islands, as well as development ideas elsewhere, might be compromised by the dropping water levels.

But we can take solace in the fact that all of our tourism eggs don't rest in one mud-filled basket.

Experts have long celebrated our area's economic strength because of its diversity; in other words, there isn't one industry that keeps local registers ringing, but several. When one hits a slump, the others can help cushion the blow.

The same can be said about tourism. While Lake Lanier may not be at its most scenic right now, the fall season is expected to bring its usual number of visitors from metro Atlanta and beyond to admire the scenery and culture of North Georgia.

According to state figures, visitors to Georgia in 2006 contributed some $30 billion to the state economy, including $11.2 billion by out-of-state visitors. Some $8.8 billion comes from leisure travel, rather than business trips. Of the 62,000 some-odd travelers spending that money, more than half are from outside of the state.

Cheryl Smith with the Northeast Georgia Mountains division of the state Department of Economic Development believes it will be a strong year for tourism in our region. She points to the growth of a popular new attraction: Corn mazes, which have popped up all over Northeast Georgia in recent years and draw a huge number of visitors. What started as simple labyrinths through a cornfield now include all types of themes and activities that can make them a daylong destination.

"People are getting creative in packaging their products with an added dimension," Smith said.

Some 100,000 visitors were expected this weekend for the Petit Le Mans road race at Road Atlanta in Braselton. The event, now in its 10th year, has been a boon to the area and continues to grow. The folks who come in for the race aren't just from Atlanta or Marietta but from all over the world, and unload an estimated $52 million while they're here.

Meanwhile, the usual lineup of fall festivals has begun, luring local folk and "flatlanders" alike to enjoy cooler temps and cool fun. Each community has its own special festival theme: The Big Apple in Cornelia, Gold Rush Days in Dahlonega, Mountain Moonshine in Dawsonville and Mule Camp Market in Gainesville. Where else can one marvel at a craftsman making a gourd birdhouse or musician strumming a dulcimer while you enjoy such delicacies as a fried pickle on a stick?

But while the towns will be full of festival atmosphere, some folks prefer the solitude of a hike or camping trip to our wilderness areas. The parks and wildlife reserves will be full of nature lovers looking to get away from the city traffic for awhile to enjoy the kind of peace and quiet you can only find in the great outdoors. Smith says campground owners in the Helen area report their phones "ringing off the hook" with visitors looking to book sites.

One plus this year is that gasoline prices are down somewhat from the past two years, when hurricanes and other factors drove them up to and over $3 a gallon. Even a slight dip in pump prices will encourage folks to fill the tank and head to the mountains for the weekend.

And so much for worries about the drought draining the fall color from our trees. Apparently folks will come up whether the leaves are a mix of fiery red and deep gold or just rusty brown. They're looking to fill their lungs with clean mountain air, their bellies with boiled peanuts and barbecue and their ears with the twang of bluegrass, no matter what color the trees happen to be.

The drought isn't going away soon, and we all must do our part to conserve water and consider long-term solutions. But it appears that the beauty of the season, and all that it brings Northeast Georgia, won't be held hostage by dry weather.

Originally published Oct. 7, 2007