Will fish lure tourists to Atlanta?
Other attractions hope aquarium increases business for all
By David E. Williams
A study conducted for the aquarium estimated it would pump $172 million into Atlanta's economy.
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The Georgia Aquarium points to the Atlanta skyline like the prow of a giant ship -- an ark filled with more than 100,000 exotic creatures.
It's the largest aquarium in the world, with five "galleries" that are home to fish that can be seen off the coast of Georgia, as well as some that have never been displayed on this continent.
City tourism officials hope visitors will come for the aquarium and stay to see other nearby attractions, such as Zoo Atlanta, the King Center and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
Sam A. Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, says the aquarium could alert the nation that "Atlanta has a legitimate tourism magnet, and that, I think, is going to bump up all of the other venues we have."
Aquarium officials expect about 2 million people to visit the aquarium each year to see Ralph and Norton, the huge and surprisingly graceful whale sharks, beluga whales, sea lions and otters, and delicate, weedy sea dragons -- Australian sea horses that look more like crocheted doilies than their fearsome namesakes.
Atlanta, 250 miles inland, might seem like an odd location for a world-class marine exhibit. But it's also a city with a population of about 429,000 and more than 4.7 million people living in the metropolitan area.
"The people who live along the oceans may know a lot about oceans. The people who live inside the country tend to know the least," said aquarium Executive Director Jeff Swanagan. "So it's exactly the reason why an aquarium needs to be the middle of the country, to educate the citizenry."
A study conducted for backers of the project predicted that the aquarium would pump an estimated $172 million into the Atlanta economy in an average year. When the new World of Coca Cola -- scheduled to open next door in 2007 -- is factored in, that number jumps to almost $200 million.
That's a lot of money, but makes up only a modest percentage of the city's economy, said study author Bruce Seaman.
Seaman, an economics professor at Georgia State University, said the biggest impact would come from conventioneers who bring their families on business trips or extend those trips -- even by just a half day.
"There's going to be some people who are going to come to the city primarily to go to the aquarium, but nobody's kidding themselves," Seaman said. "Most people that are going to visit, who are not local, are going to be here for something else."
Atlanta is a popular convention city, said Lauren Jarrell, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city is served by a convenient airport and has 12,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the city's main conference center.
But a lot of the city's attractions are off the beaten path.
"No one's ever come to Atlanta for tourism," said Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, who donated $200 million to build the aquarium. "I mean they come for business, they come to change planes at the airport, but they don't come into the city. It's not known as a tourist attraction the way Chicago is, the way San Diego is, the way Las Vegas is.
"I think that this is going to help change that perception in people's minds and that we're going to get tourists from all over the United States to come," Marcus said.
The feasibility study focused on a typical year, because aquarium attendance tends to drop after the first year or two, Seaman said.
Steve File, general manager of Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies drew about 2 million people when it opened in 2001.
"It's typical in the aquarium business that your first year is your honeymoon year and then it drops 20 or 30 percent after that, and that's what we're seeing," File said. "[Annual attendance] is about 1.6 million now."
The Ripley aquarium is in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a tiny tourist town in the Smoky Mountains.
"Gatlinburg is a city that's really unique in that it's only a community of 3,500 people but it gets about 10 million visitors (a year)," File said.
The area is better known for outdoor activities -- there's a ski resort nearby, and many people come to hike, shop and watch the leaves change in the fall. It's also only a few miles from Pigeon Forge, which is packed with outlet malls, museums, dinner theaters and Dollywood, an amusement park built by country singer Dolly Parton.
"If people spend three or four days there, then at some point they will come to the aquarium, particularly if it rains," File said.
Seaman said that having lots of attractions in one area tends to draw visitors, rather than increase competition.
He compared it to the restaurant business, saying that people often decide to go to an area where there are several places to eat, then decide which restaurant they want to go to.
Danica Kombol, marketing director for the Imagine It! Children's Museum of Atlanta, says that having the aquarium so close will attract many potential children's museum visitors to the area.
"What we have found is that people who attend one cultural attraction are more likely to visit other cultural attractions, so it really has more of a domino effect," Kombol said.
She said that her hope is that families will go to the aquarium, have a great time and think, "Hey, we should do this more often."
"So the aquarium is not my competition, my competition is television and apathy," Kombol said.
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