People enjoy a day at the beach recently between Fourth and Fifth Street on St. Simons Island.

Don’t be surprised to hear more than just an occasional “howdy” on area beaches and in island restaurants.

A greater number of individuals and families from states like Texas and other parts of the country are discovering Georgia’s coast and booking visits to the Golden Isles.

It’s a trend that began showing up on the radar of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau more than a half decade ago.

“Historically Georgia has always been our top market and continues to be today, but we are definitely noticing a shift in the last six years,” said Scott McQuade, president and CEO of the visitors bureau.

“With the shift in our marketing strategy to broaden our visitor base, we are now attracting a greater concentration of visitors across the entire East Coast. We strategically place advertising in these distant markets to create awareness and motivate visitors to come to the Golden Isles as they generally stay longer and create a larger economic impact.”

The strategy produced favorable results, drawing more pleasure and relaxation seekers from surrounding states and from across deeper regions of the nation. Then a real killjoy arrived: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Prior to COVID we were actually gaining traction across the entire country and growing our fly market with our national advertising campaign, and we will reinvigorate that effort this coming year,” McQuade said.

Don’t expect the greeting of “Good morn’” to fade away. While the number of in-state visitors is down, Georgia remains the biggest market of this oceanside attraction.

“Certainly Georgia visitors will be our bread-and-butter for what we call the weekend warriors, but we are now attracting a more broad visitor market that helps diversify our visitor economy,” McQuade said.

“According to our most recent data, Georgia visitors to the Golden Isles are down 10% over this 6-year time period. Atlanta continues to be our top market and will continue to be with our concerted efforts to compete for one of our critical feeder cities. What has changed most over this time is that we are bringing visitors from all over the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest now.”

McQuade’s observations follow questions about studies indicating more Georgians plan to stay closer to home this summer vacation season. It’s a finding that usually bodes well for locations like the Golden Isles — places that feature miles of beaches and nature, bicycle and pedestrian trails.

It’s difficult to say how reports of recent oil leakage from the shipwreck Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound will influence tourist numbers or whether it will even have an impact at all.

McQuade said the bureau is prepared to receive feedback and answer questions.

But “so far it has been quiet, and we hope that continues to be the case,” he said.

“It would take some concentrated effort to find out the true negative impact to tourism the incident has caused as a whole, if any. In a normal year we might see a more predictable trend, but this year has been anything but normal.”

Like the rest of the community, the bureau looks forward to the day the sound is clear.

“We were very pleased to see Coast Guard and United Command personnel on the beaches picking up small amounts of discharge,” McQuade said. “We are very thankful for the proactive approach to the situation and the tireless effort.”

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