Crowds expected at Georgia’s beaches, mountains for Fourth of July

Thousands of Fourth of July revelers will be heading to Georgia’s beaches and mountains for the long holiday weekend as the travel industry continues to recuperate from COVID-19.

Explore Georgia deputy commissioner Mark Jaronski said there’s “a lot of pent-up demand and desire to travel” right now, especially to places with plenty of outdoor activities.

While the state’s vacation spots haven’t completely returned to normal, they’re getting there. “There are more travelers and there are more events available, but we’re not back to a full tourism market just yet,” Jaronski said.

AAA expects a record number of road trips for Independence Day.

Cabins in Blue Ridge are booked up, and the Golden Isles is seeing record numbers of visitors streaming to beach destinations.

“We are full,” said Jode Mull, director of tourism services for Fannin County’s Convention and Visitors Bureau in Blue Ridge. “You’ve got people who are here all this week and all next week as well.”

With about 2,000 vacation homes and 6,000 second homes, Fannin County is a big draw for families looking to cool off in North Georgia mountains with whitewater rafting, tubing and kayaking.

“Our phones are ringing off the hook now,” with people trying to find a place to stay, said Mull, who added that the county has no pandemic restrictions on activities. “Everything’s back on.”

Though the number of COVID-19 cases has plummeted in Atlanta, the city is remaining cautious. Some restrictions on large events remain. Only recently has the city begun accepting permit applications for outdoor events of up to 49,999 people.

And for the second year, the fireworks show at Centennial Olympic Park has been canceled. The pandemic gets the blame this year too, but in a roundabout way. A decline in convention business for the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which operates the park, has meant less revenue for luxuries like fireworks, according to spokesman Randy Lieberman, who said the authority hopes to bring the event back next year. The City of Chamblee also canceled its July 4 fireworks this year.

To be sure, Georgia’s capital city will still play host to many Independence Day celebrations.

The Atlanta Braves will have fireworks after the Friday night game against the Miami Marlins at Truist Park, but won’t have fireworks after their Saturday and Sunday afternoon games.

Independence Day weekend events and fireworks displays are planned at Stone Mountain, as well as in Decatur, Marietta, Alpharetta and other metro Atlanta cities.

Saturday will bring an Atlanta Hawks vs Milwaukee Bucks game to State Farm Arena in the conference final. And the AJC Peachtree Road Race will take place in Atlanta Saturday and Sunday. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport expects to handle 1.55 million passengers during the holiday period from Wednesday through Monday.

Last year, Atlanta’s hotels averaged 60% to 62% full during the Fourth of July weekend, while Savannah’s hotels averaged 74% to 76% full, according to hospitality data company STR. Recent weekly data for June shows Atlanta’s hotels averaged 67.1% full while Savannah’s hotels averaged 80.7% full.

Expedia Group said Atlanta was its top-searched destination in Georgia for the 4th of July weekend, with Savannah and Brunswick at No. 2 and 3.

Visit Savannah president Joe Marinelli said he’s confident the ongoing restrictions in Atlanta are driving some visitors to his city, which is planning fireworks along the riverfront.

“Things here have been much more open, and the word has gotten out to people” in the Atlanta area, the biggest source of visitors to Savannah, Marinelli said.

COVID fatigue and increased vaccination rates have people “anxious to get to the beaches,” Marinelli said.

Down the road, the Jekyll Island Club Resort is sold out for the July 4th weekend.

Golden Isles Convention & Visitors Bureau president Scott McQuade, who oversees tourism to Jekyll, St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons and Brunswick, said hotel bed tax collections in the area are exceeding the record set in 2019 by more than 15%. This summer, he expects to see hotel occupancy levels around 90%, “if not even higher.”

That’s driving up prices for hotel rooms. McQuade said rates are about 19% higher than last year.

Because of the state’s approach to the pandemic, “Visitors came back to Georgia quicker than most states in the nation,” McQuade said. “The fact that we’re fully open now and have been open since last summer, we’re already in our stride.”

One factor affecting the tourism industry that could cause headaches for travelers is the labor crunch. Hotels, restaurants and other businesses say they are having a hard time finding workers.

“We’re definitely seeing workforce shortage in the area,” McQuade said. Some hotels have been forced to cap occupancy at 75% to 80% because of that, he said.

“We definitely recommend planning in advance in terms of booking your rooms, making your restaurant reservations and booking your attractions,” McQuade said. “If you don’t want to wait in a line, I definitely recommend that you call in advance.”