For the first time in seven months, Interstate 95 motorists will be allowed to do more than use the restrooms at the welcome center in Glynn County.

The welcome center promoting the Golden Isles opened the doors Wednesday for the first time since March. Staff greeted a steady stream of visitors seeking information about the Golden Isles and other parts of the state.

“We’re all super excited. We’ve been pretty steady this morning,” said Jennifer Podlin, the welcome center’s manager.

Staff at the desk wore masks and worked behind protective screening for safety. Masks were not required, but the few visitors who walked in without one were offered one and asked to wear it. Podlin said the vast majority of people were already wearing a mask when they walked into the building, and the ones coming in without a mask complied with request to wear one.

Before the pandemic, Podlin said the center averaged around 400 visitors a day. It’s uncertain when those numbers will return, but there are typically two people at the desk to answer questions and suggest different activities in the Golden Isles.

While many motorists stopping into the center are headed to tourist destinations in Florida, Podlin said most grab a copy of the visitor’s guide to the Golden Isles, and pamphlets highlighting some of the popular destinations in the area. Many return to the area after browsing the guide and pamphlets, she said.

The welcome center will open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

The visitor center in Glynn County plays an important role in promoting tourism in the Golden Isles.

Scott McQuade, president and CEO of the Golden Isles Convention & Visitors Bureau, said motels near Interstate 95 continue to struggle, with occupancy down about 25 percent because of fewer travelers, and those who have a specific destination. Other destinations in the Golden Isles have fared surprisingly well during the pandemic, he said.

The welcome centers on I-95 in St. Marys and Port Wentworth have been open for more than a month and are also seeing lots of motorists, said Emily Murray, a public information spokesperson for Explore Georgia, a tourism office within the state Department of Economic Development.

“We’re seeing a good number of people coming into our visitor centers,” she said.

The state-run centers in St. Marys and Port Wentworth are open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. seven days a week.

The tourism centers play an important role in helping to support tourism across the state. In the past seven months, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an estimated $9.6 billion loss in tourism-related spending in Georgia.

“The leisure and hospitality industries were, by far, hardest hit and continue to be a significant source of the current unemployment rate,” said Mark Jaronski, deputy commissioner of Explore Georgia.

Restoring the tourism industry is essential to Georgia’s economic recovery, he said.

“Wearing masks, washing hands and surfaces, keeping social distance, and staying home when sick, can create a comfortable and welcoming environment for travelers”, he said. “I’ve spent my entire career in the tourism and hospitality industry, and I’ve seen that time and again, travel has come back from every recession.”

There is no substitute for traveling to spend quality time with family and friends and from traveling to do business in person, he said.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic ends — and it will — travel will return. Until then, we need each business and resident across the state to follow the simple health measures that will keep you, your fellow Georgians, and our visitors safe. As visitors return to exploring Georgia like they have before, Georgia’s tourism industry will be ready every step of their journey.”

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