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Georgia tourism industry bouncing back from COVID
tourism
Passersby stop on the edge of Chippewa Square in Savannah are shown at the spot where actor Tom Hanks sat on a movie-prop park bench in the 1994 film "Forrest Gump." State officials are expecting a big jump in tourism in Southeast Georgia and around the state in 2021. - photo by Associated Press

SAVANNAH – When the coronavirus pandemic struck Georgia in March of last year, no industry shut down harder or faster than hospitality.

The leisure and hospitality sector lost 223,000 jobs statewide between February and April 2020.

 “We lost half of March, all of April and most of May,” added Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, that city’s tourism promotion agency. “Losing those months was hard on us.”

But as the second Memorial Day of the COVID-19 era approaches, and with it the start of the summer vacation season, the signs point to a tourism recovery.

“We’re picking back up,” said Mark Jaronski, the deputy commissioner at the Georgia Department of Economic Development in charge of the agency’s tourism division. “The vaccine rollout has had the most positive effect on our visitation.”

Even during its worst days, the pandemic didn’t damage Georgia’s tourism industry as much as it hurt other states.

Jaronski credited the comparatively soft impact to Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision not to completely shut down the Georgia’s economy when he issued a shelter in place order in April 2020.

“Because we remained open, we were able to do better than the national average and many states,” he said.

While conventions, concerts and sporting events were shut down, Georgians began venturing out to the North Georgia mountains and the state’s beaches within weeks of Kemp’s order.

“People wanted to stay away from crowds and large group gatherings,” Jaronski said. “They were told by health experts and opinion leaders to stay away from groups, but maybe it’s OK to go to the beaches or mountains.”

There have even been some success stories during the pandemic. As the isolation afforded by camping sent sales of recreational vehicles soaring, visitation to state parks went up.

During fiscal year 2020, which ran through the end of June of last year, visits to state parks grew to 11.8 million, an increase of 562,000 over the previous year. Camping occupancy improved from 13% to 46%.

“Last year was quite a busy year,” said Kim Hatcher, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Parks, Recreation & Historic Sites Division. “Occupancy is definitely up, mostly for camping.”

With the continuing popularity of the beaches and mountains, the state’s leisure and hospitality industry had gained back 144,000 of the 223,000 jobs lost to the pandemic by March of this year, 65% of the total, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.

Even more convention-dependent cities have begun to bounce back from the pandemic.

Marinelli said weekend visits by leisure travelers began heading back up by mid-June of last year and are going strong heading into the summer.

“Leisure travel is a big winner right now,” he said. “With Savannah being a leisure destination, we’re fortunate.”

To help complete the recovery, the state has launched a new marketing campaign aimed at the pent-up demand for travel on the part of pandemic-weary Americans.

The campaign conjures up the image of a sprinter coiled at the starting line. Instead of “Ready. Set. Go,” the slogan is “Ready. Set. Georgia.”

Jaronski said the new campaign targets the growing number of Americans eager to travel longer distances than last year, either by driving or flying.

“Last year, we focused almost exclusively on in-state travelers,” he said. “Now, we’re expanding beyond Georgia to bordering states and places like New York, Chicago and Miami.”


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