The letdown of Atlanta tourism 

How can we make our city a true destination?

Last week, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau released new figures that indicate 37 million people visited the Atlanta area in 2010. It's swell news for the hospitality industry. People are seemingly tired of letting the crappy economy dictate their spending habits, so tourism has finally rebounded to prerecession levels. Still, the announcement begs an important question: Why the hell are all these people coming to Atlanta?

The announcement happened to coincide with Labor Day weekend, during which there's no lack of activity in our fair city. The Decatur Book Festival, NASCAR races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Dragon*Con — not to mention a slew of other events that we've taken the liberty of bundling under the title of "ClusterFest" — will make Atlanta a true destination for bibliophiles, race fans and adult men who enjoy dressing up as Klingons.

But pity the poor bastard who shows up here any other weekend of the year. You know you've seen it: That dazed family, standing on the corner or North Avenue and Peachtree Street, looking up at the skyline and wondering, "Where am I? And why am I here?" Frankly, if the Visitors Bureau wants to sustain our positive tourism trend, a lot of thought needs to be given to what the experience of visiting Atlanta is like the rest of the year.

Historically, Atlanta has had four things going for it as a regional destination: high-end shopping malls, bare-it-all strip clubs, a crazy nightlife scene — now much muted — and our status as the home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It's pretty obvious which among these things the city should capitalize on. Now, imagine being a visitor to Atlanta who gets off the train at the deceptively named King Memorial MARTA station. The roughly one-mile walk to the King Center is drab and unwelcoming. And after you've toured the King historic sites — well, then what? Hoof it back to MARTA? Wait for a cab to take you to your next destination?

Atlanta is a city of neighborhoods, which contributes to its charm, but there's a decided lack of connectivity between these neighborhoods. The Visitors Bureau website claims, "With one main airport ... and a variety of Atlanta transportation options, getting around the city is easy." Yeah, right. With serious limitations among Atlanta's various transit systems, the only good, reliable way to explore the city — and to reach such popular attractions as the Atlanta History Center, Six Flags, Stone Mountain and the Cyclorama — is by car.

Plus, the city's actual family-oriented, tourist attractions — i.e., things that aren't malls or strip clubs — are expensive. An outing to Zoo Atlanta or the Georgia Aquarium costs around 100 bucks for a family of four. And a certain downtown "children's museum" is a serious letdown.

The quality of life in Atlanta is, for the most part, great for those able to easily get around. But we doubt that most visitors ever get a real sense of how much the city has to offer. If Atlanta wants to capitalize on an upswing in tourism, we need to invest in our historic districts, make our city more walkable and offer some real attractions that don't cost a fortune.

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