MACON, Ga. (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to attend the Georgia National Fair in Perry in October.
The 11-day event with its amusement rides, livestock competitions, concerts and more is one of the major tourist attractions in Middle Georgia. The fairgrounds is a cog in Georgia's $63 billion tourism industry and in the midstate's two biggest counties — Bibb and Houston — there was a combined $629 million in direct tourism spending in 2017, according to a report from the U.S. Travel Association.
Macon's culture, history and musical heritage are the biggest tourism drivers of a diverse landscape, said Gary Wheat, president and CEO of the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
There are museums like the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, Tubman Museum and the Museum of Arts and Sciences. Then there's the history behind the Cannonball House and Hay House.
The top site in Macon is the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Monument which averages about 150,000 visitors a year. The park's expansion is projected to increase that number by 30 percent, Wheat said.
There's events and festivals, concert venues as well as the musical history behind Otis Redding, The Allman Brothers Band, Little Richard and others that are vital to Macon-Bibb's tourism, Wheat said.
"They're our tourism cornerstone," Wheat said. "That's the fabric of our community so it's very important that we protect that because of what it means to the tourism landscape."
Sports venues and teams are another attraction for people visiting Middle Georgia. People may spend the evening at a Macon Bacon baseball game and youth baseball players and their families will come to Warner Robins for the Southeast Region Little League tournament in July.
"Sports is one of those things that we're really ramping up," Wheat said. "In our industry sports has always stayed strong even during the downturn. Youth sports kind of replaced family vacations, replaced business travel because people are always going to follow their kids and use it as their vacations. "
One of the signs of a healthy tourism scene is the number of hotel and motel stays, said Wheat, and Marsha Priest Buzzell, executive director of the Warner Robins Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The hotel-motel tax brought in nearly $4 million in Bibb County in 2017 and a combined $2.9 million for Warner Robins and Perry, according to figures from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
Those taxes help fund convention and visitors bureaus and some tourist attractions throughout the state. There's also a separate sales tax charged for each night stay that goes to local municipalities and the state.
There are roughly 5,500 hotel and motel rooms in Macon. In February, the average occupancy rate was 68 percent and generated about $500,000 in taxes.
"That goes into the economy and supports 3,700 jobs and generates $10 million in taxes each year in Macon-Bibb," Wheat said.
One of the hits to Macon's tourism scene came in 2011 with the closing of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
The day after it closed was the first day for Rock Candy Tours, which gave people a look into Macon's musical history.
Rock Candy's co-founder Jessica Walden, who had spent five years working at the Music Hall of Fame, said the support from the Macon-Bibb CVB and state have been important to the success of Rock Candy.
So much so that the company is expanding the types of tours it offers.
And there's been a shift in where people who take part in the tours come from.
"Really at first it was out of town guests that made up our (tours)," Walden said. "We did a lot of private tours of people specifically visiting Macon on purpose. We saw a lot of European travelers but we didn't get a lot of local takers."
"In the last two years we've been heavier on locals taking our tour," Walden added. "It's neat to see this local interest in tourism and that's really has to do with all the excitement here in Macon."
Tourism's economic windfall also means tax savings that averaged $322 for Houston County families and about $500 for families living in Bibb in 2017, according to on figures from the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
There was $248 million tourism-related spending in Houston County in 2017, which comes out to a daily average of $676,712, Buzzell said.
The payroll for tourism in Houston County was $51.8 million in 2017. The same year $10.7 million in state taxes and more than $7 million in local taxes were collected, according to Buzzell.
Two of the biggest attractions in Warner Robins is the Museum of Aviation and the Rigby's entertainment and water park complexes, Buzzell said.
A wide array of jobs is supported through tourism. It's the hotel workers and gas station clerks and the taxi or rideshare services, retail workers and those working in construction who build the hotels.
There are also different types of tourists.
"It's not just an overnight stay," Buzzell said. "It's also the day-tripper. That's why we say tourism is such a sustainable economic developer."
Then there's the leisure traveler versus the business traveler who's in town for a conference, Buzzell said.
There's also a positive effect from the level of hospitality people are shown when they visit Middle Georgia for the first time, she said.
"The repeat visitors stay longer," Buzzell said. "If they stay longer then they're spending more money in the community."