Keeping Georgia on their minds is part of the state’s estimated $60 billion tourism industry. From bustling metro cities to mountains and beaches to scenic rural communities with winding agricultural trails and historic destinations, tourism is one of Georgia’s largest industries creating more than 440,000 jobs across the state.
As a tax revenue source, tourism-related spending provides approximately $3.2 billion to the state and local communities each year. According to the U.S. Travel Association and Tourism Economics, every Georgia household would need to be taxed an additional $900 per year to replace taxes received as a result of tourism’s tax contribution.
In South Georgia, tourism dollars get a boost with the endless stream of traffic along Interstate 75, where each day thousands of travelers are headed to and from Florida and destinations in between.
Hugging the interstate corridor, towns like Valdosta and Tifton collect a large percentage of their tourism revenue from visitors pulling off the busy interstate to stay overnight, gas up their cars, and get a bite to eat.
In Valdosta, a few miles from the Florida line, tourism represents approximately $295 million in economic impact, and that’s not just from interstate traffic.
Chris Hamilton, CEO and president of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Conference Center and Tourism Authority, sees the impact of tourism as a bigger picture.
“Visitor traffic of any kind contributes to tourism spending,” Hamilton said. “Valdosta State University, for example, generate visitor traffic by way of students and families investigating it, friends and family visiting students who go to school there and activities that happen there, such as football games.”
With 48 hotels and motels representing 4,288 rooms, Lowndes County can handle a large number of overnight guests traveling the highways, but Hamilton said the Valdosta-Lowndes Tourism Authority is also upping its marketing efforts to promote the area as a leisure destination.
“We tripled our marketing budget this fiscal year and hired a dedicated marketing director who manages ad campaigns, social media platforms, and guerrilla tactics—such as getaway giveaways, pop-up event ticket promotions and in-person appearances at appropriate times—we might deploy to get attention,” Hamilton said. “We have research projects in place to make sure our dollars have the greatest impact, we’ve increased ad placement in targeted locations and will double our number of social media platforms this fiscal year.”
In addition to a great location, Hamilton said the food and downtown experiences in Lowndes County are exceptional, not just in quality but also the sheer number of diverse and quantity of options.
“Once you break through the cloud of chain restaurants off I-75, you get a sensational food and beverage experience from a plethora of what we call ‘Very Valdosta’ dishes,” Hamilton said. “The downtown experiences in Valdosta and Hahira are magnificent. Both are easily walkable and offer many homegrown places to shop, snap photos, and eat. Likewise, both offer regular events and activities as icing on the cake.”
Providing tourism dollars for Lowndes County, Wild Adventures Theme Park, located just off I-75, pulls in 600,000 to 700,000 guests each year.
A family-focused theme park, Wild Adventures offers more than 40 family and thrill rides, hundreds of exotic animals, and special events and concerts throughout the year. According to park officials, though visitors come from across the country, strong attendance is from South Georgia, North Florida, and Southeast Alabama.
Approximately 50 miles north of Lowndes County, another flurry of motorist activity can be found in Tift County, which also benefits economically from I-75 traffic.
“There is a lot of tourism diversity in Tifton,” said Tyron Spearman, director of tourism for Tifton-Tift County. “With the combination of activities generated through agriculture, healthcare, education, along with our festivals and events, we see tourism continuing to explode.”
With numerous state commissions and associations located in Tift County, including the Georgia Peanut Commission and Georgia Pecan Growers Association, the University of Georgia Tifton Campus Conference Center is a leading draw in the region for trade shows, conferences, and meetings. With two auditoriums and a ballroom that will hold 1,000 people, the center hosts hundreds of conferences and thousands of visitors each year.
“Many of these conferences have overnight guests,” Spearman said. “Plus, they host several concerts each year that bring people here.”
Other conference venues and attractions include the Georgia Museum of Agriculture, the Tifton Terminal Railroad Museum, along with numerous festivals and sporting events, all contribute to Tift County’s approximately $100 million tourism industry.
“Our goal is to put heads in beds,” said Spearman in reference to Tift County’s 1,100 hotel and motel rooms. “We do this through sponsoring events, and if they are successful, it brings more people to town.”
Festivals of Fun
Started five years ago, Tifton’s Rhythm & Ribs BBQ Festival is becoming an annual favorite for locals and tourists. Held the first weekend in March, the two-day event brings some of the region’s top grill masters to Tifton to compete for barbecue bragging rights. In addition to mouthwatering barbecue, the festival includes arts and crafts vendors, live entertainment, and activities for the entire family.
With annual festivals and events held across South Georgia—from azaleas to peacocks and honeybees— the Thomasville Rose Show and Festival has been a tradition since the 1920s. Celebrating its 98th year, the Rose Show and Festival brings thousands of visitors annually to Southwest Georgia on the last weekend in April.
The Rose Show and Festival may be Thomasville’s oldest festival, but throughout the year the city hosts more than a dozen festivals and events. Beginning in February, the Antique Show and Sale welcomes some of the country’s most prestigious art dealers; in April, Due South provides a weekend of activities featuring the sights, sounds, and flavors of the South; November is known for the Plantation Wildlife Arts Festival art show, sale, and related plantation activities; and Victorian Christmas represents a tradition that captures the historic charm of the holidays.
“We are very events driven in Thomasville,” said Bonnie Hayes, Thomasville’s tourism director. “During our annual events, we see a definite spike in tourism,” referencing Thomas County’s $71 million economic impact related to tourist-related spending.
Hayes said Thomasville’s downtown also plays a vital role in boosting tourism revenue. “We are finding that people are coming here more and more just to enjoy our amazing downtown shopping and dining experiences.”
With a selection of more than 100 shops and restaurants in the downtown area, Hayes said Thomasville is not only attracting visitors from across South Georgia and North Florida, but also seeing visitors coming from New York, California, and even Canada who have heard about Thomasville.
“Downtown Thomasville has become a destination,” said Hayes. “We have people who come for the day or weekend, they buy gas, eat and shop, and then decide to spend the night. They really find themselves enchanted with Thomasville, returning several more times, and recommending the city to friends.”
Hayes explained that tourism dollars translate to savings for Thomas County residents. “The nice thing, everywhere a tourist goes they are supporting our local businesses and leaving behind tax dollars. More than $2 million is generated in local tax revenue, and this is money homeowners don’t have to pay. Because of tourism, each household pays $291 less in their [local] taxes because visitors come and make up that revenue.”
Blending Ag & Tourism
In Colquitt County, blending agriculture, the state’s No. 1 industry, and tourism helps generate a $59 million in tourism economic impact.
With more than 80,000 visitors and 1,200 vendors, the Sunbelt Ag Expo is one of the region’s largest tourism generators. Held each year during the third week in October, at Spence Field in Moultrie, the site has a 100-acre exhibit area that adjoins a 600-acre working research farm. The exhibit area, which includes both indoor and outdoor space, if filled with vendors representing every imaginable product and service that benefits agribusiness, as well as the average family.
“We have vendors that come from across the country that stay not only in Moultrie but surrounding communities,” said Tommie Beth Willis, president of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce.
Willis said in addition to the expo, Colquitt County’s agriculture-based tourism is supported by stops on Georgia Grown Trail 37, the state’s first official agritourism highway. The approximately 160-mile trail runs along Georgia Highway 37 from Clinch to Clay counties and has eight stops located in Colquitt County.
“The trail offers a little taste of Colquitt County,” Willis said. “People can stop and taste wine, enjoy some pepper jelly and goat cheese, there are a lot of options. They can sample and then order online to keep the flavor of Colquitt County all year.”
Though it’s the largest vegetable and row crop producing county in Georgia, Willis said Colquitt County has a diverse mix of industries and tourism opportunities.
In addition to being known for agriculture, Colquitt County is nationally recognized for its competitive diving facility.
The Moss Farms Diving Center, which is regarded as one of the top outdoor diving centers in the country, brings visitors to Moultrie for regional, state, and national meets.
In 2016, Moultrie gained national attention when it hosted the AT&T USA Diving National Championships, the biggest event hosted at the center. Once again, the region benefited from the championship event that brought 600 elite divers, 200 coaches, and judges, plus family members and friends. The two-week event had an estimated $4.3 million in economic impact for Colquitt County and surrounding communities.
“The diving championship had a huge regional impact not just for Moultrie but the entire region,” Willis said. “We worked with neighboring communities to direct the visitors to other areas. The same with the expo, we work with other communities to help accommodate all the visitors.”
Through the Moultrie-Colquitt Chamber of Commerce, Willis said there is a committee charged with promoting tourism efforts.
“We have a lot of tourism opportunities besides agriculture and the diving center,” Willis said. “With our plantations and lodges, we are becoming a destination for weddings and business meetings.”
Though Moultrie is not located on a major interstate, Willis said they are working on ways to attract more visitors.
“We are promoting Moultrie and Colquitt County not only locally but also regionally and across the state,” she said. “We have a growing downtown and art center that are all part of our tourism efforts.”