The Chinese love shopping and “Gone With the Wind.” Europeans enjoy exploring historical connections. Brazilians come for exciting theme parks and beautiful beaches.
With more international guests visiting the U.S., Georgia is working harder to set its diverse destinations and attractions apart.
The effort has paid off. Georgia became the second fastest-growing state and 10th largest in the continental U.S. for attracting international visitors in 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available.
But why look outside the country? It’s a simple case of economic forecasting, said Joseph Walker, director of business development for tourism at the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
“We looked forward, and the domestic travel market looks to be soft in the coming years,” Mr. Walker told GlobalAtlanta. The state isn’t giving up on domestic tourists, but “the largest growth potential is definitely going to be coming from the international market.”
While drawing new faces to the state enhances quality of life and improves cultural diversity, tourism is fundamentally about putting Georgians to work, Mr. Walker said. The industry has an economic impact of $32 billion per year and supports 234,100 jobs in the state.
On average, overseas visitors stay longer and spend more per trip than those crossing state lines.
In 2009, foreign tourists spent $1.8 billion in Georgia, up 4.5 percent from 2008. That’s comparable to the value of the state’s exports in goods to China for the same year. Every $1 million tourists pump into the state’s economy creates 11.5 jobs and generates $33,143 in payroll and $123,588 in state taxes, Mr. Walker said.
To attract these visitors and their pocketbooks, the Georgia tourism division is marketing the state’s charms to tour operators and travel agents all over the world. Georgia has tourism sales managers in the U.K. and Germany, two of the largest source nations, and works with its trade offices in 10 countries to identify travel trends.
In Europe, France and Italy are the newest frontiers. French travelers have discovered Georgia on their own, but few tour operators there are advertising Georgia products, Mr. Walker said. Georgia has seen little interest from Italy over the years, but attending trade shows in the last few months has helped the state make inroads. About 80 percent of travelers come to the U.S. with a group, so it’s essential to connect with those who organize the trips, Mr. Walker said.
That’s especially true with Brazil and China, two emerging markets with large populations, currencies strengthening against the dollar and a broadening base of middle class families eager to see the world.
Brazil is projected to break into the top five countries for outbound travel to the U.S. by 2015. In 2010, 22 percent more Brazilians came to the U.S. than the previous year.
For most Brazilian tourists, Atlanta is just a place to change planes on their way to more popular destinations: New York, California and especially Florida, said Liliana Di Pietro, who runs Fjord Turismo, a travel agency in Rio de Janeiro.
Ms. Di Pietro said U.S.-bound travelers account for about 30 percent of her business, but virtually no one goes to Atlanta except on business.
Mr. Walker is painfully aware that Georgia is losing out to its neighbor to the south, which draws many Brazilian families to the sunny beaches of Miami and the theme parks of Orlando.
While Georgia is trying to bring more tourists directly from Brazil, it’s also looking to draw tourists up from Florida or out of the planes coming from the four Brazilian cities Delta Air Lines Inc. serves from Atlanta.
“It is easier to try and get them off the plane than it is to introduce them to a totally new destination. People have already heard of Atlanta, they know about Georgia, so all we have to do is remind them of the benefits” of staying awhile.
One problem, however, is out of Georgia’s hands. Some Brazilians are choosing to travel to Europe because of the onerous interview process they have to go through in order to get a U.S. visa, Ms. Di Pietro said.
“People just want to enjoy and come back,” she said. “I know some people that have their own companies, small ones, and sometimes they don’t get a visa. That’s frustrating, very frustrating.”
Since 2008, Chinese visitors have faced less of a hassle on visas in the U.S.
That year the countries reached a bilateral agreement allowing Chinese travel agencies to partner with American tour operators to bring group leisure travelers to the U.S.
In the past, Chinese travelers who obtained visas were allowed to enter the U.S. as individuals, but groups were only permitted for educational or business purposes.
The Chinese outbound market is maturing, Mr. Walker said, which is a good sign for Georgia. Visitors don’t generally reach the South until their second or third visit.
Still, very few Chinese visitors come to Atlanta exclusively for tourism, said Demin Fan, who runs U.S. China Connection, a consultancy that brings Chinese travelers to Georgia.
Nearly all of Mr. Fan’s groups come for business or education, tacking on some leisure time on the front or back end of their trips. About 525,000 Chinese tourists visited the U.S. in 2009, 6 percent more than the previous year. Including airfare, they spent an average of $4,500 per person, according to the Commerce Department‘s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.
In Atlanta, Chinese tourists often visit the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN Center and the King Center. They especially enjoy shopping at places like Lenox Square Mall and outlet malls in North Georgia. It’s common for Chinese visitors to spend $4,000-$5,000 in Atlanta stocking up on luxury goods and gifts to take home, Mr. Fan said.
They’re also pleasantly surprised to learn that “Gone With the Wind” was written in the Margaret Mitchell House, which now sits on Peachtree Street.
“In China, everybody knows the ‘Gone With the Wind’ movie and the novel, so they are interested. Some people don’t know that that book was written here until we bring them,” said Mr. Fan.
In November, Mr. Walker and Stella Xu, the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s manager for China initiatives in tourism and global commerce, attended the China International Travel Mart in Shanghai, China, continuing an effort to display the state’s advantages to tour operators there.
That visit followed multiple trips over the past few years and the launch last August of a major eight-city Georgia tour by one of China’s largest tour operators, CYTS.
Georgia is also marketing its Civil War history, natural wonders and “real-America” charm to students coming for temporary study at universities in the state, Mr. Walker said.
Education sometimes direct tourists to places beyond the “anchor cities” of Atlanta and Savannah, said Amy Clark, leisure travel marketing director for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Athens, which is home to the University of Georgia, has been working with the state since late 2006 to sell its amenities to the international market. Over the past two years, the city has attracted tourists from at least 45 countries, with Germany, the U.K. and Canada leading the way as primary source markets.
Europeans enjoy the city’s Southern heritage and architecture, walkable downtown, nightlife and a thriving music scene that produced artists like the B-52s and R.E.M., Ms. Clark said. The city follows the state’s lead on large, new markets like Brazil and China, while continuing to encourage tourism related to the university.
“Not only can we feed off of the state’s efforts; we benefit from UGA’s world-class status as an institution of higher learning, and that means that visitors of all ages from around the world, both group and individual, come to Athens for business and pleasure that is related to the University,” Ms. Clark said.
Whichever avenues bring tourists, it’s vital for the state’s economy that they continue to come, Mr. Walker said.
“As more international visitors discover Georgia, as is happening right now, we will have an important injection of British pounds sterling, euros, reals, yuan and yen into our economy,” he said.