More Than a Pretty Place

GaBiz Editor in Chief talks about Georgia tourism’s economic impact and its dramatic recovery with Georgia Department of Economic Development Deputy Commissioner for Tourism Mark Jaronski.

Georgia has a lot to offer, from sunny beaches and pristine state parks to mountain peaks and culture-filled cities. These destinations are also a major economic driver. In 2021, the state’s tourism industry generated a total economic impact of more than $64.5 billion, including nearly 423,000 jobs supported by travel (for context, agribusiness is Georgia’s leading industry with more than $74 billion in economic impact and aerospace manufacturing clocks in at $57.5 billion). “Tourism is among Georgia’s leading sources of business and jobs… and growing,” says Georgia Department of Economic Development Deputy Commissioner for Tourism Mark Jaronski. Here, he shares more about how the Peach State is primed to keep Georgia on everyone’s minds.

The pandemic was tough all around, but tourism was particularly hard hit. How has Georgia recovered?

Domestic visitation in 2021 more than fully recovered to 2019 levels for both day and overnight segments, with nearly 160 million visitors. That’s more than 5 percent above 2019. Domestic visitor spending came within 3 percent of 2019, increasing more than 40 percent from 2020 and totaling nearly $34 billion in 2021. This progress has resulted in a full recovery of the state and local tax revenues generated from the tourism industry, equaling over $4.2 billion (slightly more than 2019). That said, the 423,000 jobs supported by Georgia’s tourism industry is still 17 percent shy of where we were in 2019, and international visitation in 2021 was just 25 percent of 2019, with international spending just 24 percent.

Georgia was the first state to officially re-open. How has that move allowed the Georgia businesses that depend on tourism to thrive?

Thanks to the leadership of Governor Kemp, our General Assembly, and the Georgia Department of Economic Development, as well as the work of our team at Explore Georgia and our statewide travel industry, Georgia not only remained open for business when many of our competitors were not, but also actively invited travelers to visit when many of our competitors did not, regardless of whether their states were open for travel. As a result, Georgia maintained the No. 5 market share rank among the 50 states and Washington D.C. that it earned in 2020 (increasing from No. 7 in the past) for domestic overnight visitation in 2021. This enabled numerous businesses and communities across the state—especially those along our coast, in the mountains, and in small towns and rural areas around our state parks—to have record levels of visitors and visitor spending.

Big cities can be big tourism draws. How do the rural areas and small towns factor into our overall tourism landscape? 

During the pandemic, travelers chose rural areas and small towns over cities. Popular destinations like Atlanta and Savannah were more negatively impacted during that time due to their historical levels of convention business and international visitation. Business and international travel are returning more slowly than leisure; however, travelers won’t forget the experiences they had and the memories they made in the last two years. As the data show, the overall tourism landscape consists of cities, rural areas, and small towns. These will remain important pieces of our strategy to match regions of our state to consumers’ interests and drive cross-visitation and economic benefit for all of Georgia.

[Also,] GPS location data now shows clearly that it is the rule, rather than the exception, that visitors traveling to one region of Georgia will also make trips to other regions. For example, in 2021, nearly 41 percent of domestic visitors to the Atlanta Metro made a secondary trip to Central Georgia. And nearly 45 percent of those who traveled to Georgia’s Coast also visited South Georgia.

Georgia has made huge investments in its infrastructure. We know that’s good for business, but how does that factor in our success as a tourist-friendly destination?

Tourism is as much a business as any other industry. There are inputs and outputs, competitive forces, and consumer needs. Infrastructure plays as important a role in the travel consumer’s journey as it does in the customer purchase cycle in any industry. Whether someone is traveling for leisure or business, solo or with others, a destination that’s easy to get to and around, with a range and quality of offerings—including hotels, restaurants, and entertainment—gains a competitive advantage over others.

What upcoming events are you most looking forward to? How can they drive dollars in Georgia’s economy? 

I’m looking forward to not only a full recovery of the convention market (compared to 2019 levels) but also helping our statewide travel and tourism partners grow Georgia’s convention business bigger and better than ever. While domestic leisure travel accounts for the vast majority of our tourism business, we believe we can make a unique contribution at the state level toward growing convention business and international visitation. Atlanta’s selection as a host city of premier events like the 2026 FIFA World Cup, 2025 College Football Playoff National Championship, and 2019 Super Bowl creates moments in time when the positive impacts of tourism visitation and visitor spending, which benefit so many hardworking Georgians, are accentuated. However, it’s important to keep in mind that our tourism industry does this through many recurring events—big and not-as-big—throughout the year and across the state. Examples include, but are not limited to, the 2022 World Cup and 2023 World Championships in Kayak in Columbus; just about every fall weekend in the North Georgia Mountains; The Masters in Augusta; St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah; summer concerts and Great Pumpkin LumiNights at Wild Adventures in Valdosta… The list goes on and on.