You do not see the tourism industry as you do manufacturing. Tourism does not have a parking lot where all the tourism employees park. You will not see 500 employee cars parked in front of a building in Tiger or Rabun Gap. However, they exist.
According to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) and the State of Georgia, the economic impact of the Travel Industry in Rabun County for 2011 was $44.27 million. It was a record year for us.
Relative to surrounding counties, we rank fifth out of the 17 counties in the Northeast Georgia Mountains Region behind Hall, Forsyth, Jackson and White. We are in a very competitive area. Oconee County, South Carolina to our east is adding four hotels right now, including a Ritz Carleton and a Marriott. To our west is Towns County that grew their tourism industry by 10% while ours grew by 6%.
Tourism is now the largest industry in Rabun County…for three reasons: first the bad, because manufacturing has departed from the area and construction has collapsed. Second, the good, we are fortunate to live in a beautiful area where visitors love to come for outdoor adventures, to enjoy our scenery and to relax. And, the third reason is we began to deliver a coordinated marketing message in 2011. We got a great start; we have along way to go. If you want to see what a coordinated marketing plan executed well over several years can achieve, take a look at White County. We have the same mountains, better lakes, a more exciting river and are only about 15 minutes further from Atlanta. By all accounts we should have a bigger tourism industry. Yet their tourism business is almost 20% bigger than ours! Why? Marketing. In 2011 White County, primarily through its CVB, spent $568,000 marketing their county. In Rabun County we spent $259,000 through the CVB, the Welcome Center, the Clayton Merchants & Business Association and the Dillard Tourism Association. While the amount has an impact, the fact that most of this money is spent in four different directions is a real problem. Imagine what we could do if we could all focus in the same direction!
The big tourism story of 2012 was Warrior Dash, coming and going. The event brought close to 30,000 people to our doorstep and generated over $1,000,000 in local spending in the spring. When they decided to add a longer race to their menu, we did not have a venue to accommodate that requirement, so they relocated. At that point the entrepreneurs who own Blue Ridge Camp, Joey and Lori Waldman, enlisted the help of the CVB and brought in the BADASS Dash. This is important, not just for the economic impact, but also for its impact on the cycle of tourism. That cycle starts when a young person first discovers Rabun County. Perhaps in summer camp or on a rafting trip or on a family reunion at the Dillard house or at an event like BADASS Dash and they realize how wonderful our area is so they come back to camp or spend a long weekend at one of our resorts and they begin to love the mountains and the friendly people and the slower pace of life. And then, as their family grows and their financial position strengthens, they buy or build a second home here and then they invite some friends up…and the cycle begins again.
We also have groups like Rotary creating events like their run and now Ara Jacobs has created a Chili Cookoff and Tom Majors is working on a classic car event and the Homebulders Association and the Mountain Laurel Magazine are planning the second year of the Mountain Jubilee, the Foxfire Mountaineer Festival is a well established event and the Rabun County Recreation Department is bringing in tournaments and have you seen all the activity going on this year at the Rabun Arena? And of course, we are coming up on the 14th year of Celebrate Clayton. The importance of Celebrate Clayton is that it is a two-day event, which puts people in our motels and resorts.
Tourism is economic development. We have a good tourism business and it could and should be much bigger. We have to all work together to make that happen. Let’s all remember we want to create lifelong memories for our visiting friends!
About the Rabun County Convention & Visitors Bureau
The Rabun County Convention & Visitors Bureau Authority is a quasi-governmental non-profit created by the Georgia Legislature in 2005. The purpose of the Authority “shall be to promote the convention and visitors industry and encourage the managed development of destination tourism in Rabun County.” The Rabun County Convention & Visitors Bureau is managed by a volunteer Board of Directors each of whom represent a specific area important to tourism in the County. The CVB website is www.explorerabun.com and its Facebook page is facebook.com/explorerabun.