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Olympics leave winners, losers in tourism, too

Amelia Island may be six hours away from Atlanta, but the beach resort is cashing in on the Olympic Games.

The resort mailed postcards last spring to travel agents and Atlanta residents touting the barrier island north of Jacksonville as a "summer getaway of Olympic proportions . . ."

"We seem to have a lot of people from Atlanta here who said they just wanted to get out of town for a little while," said Amelia Island tourism director Lorna Meehan.

Like Amelia Island, other tourist destinations in the Southeast say they're seeing more traffic, thanks to visitors who want to avoid hectic Atlanta. Others hope to see more tourists after the games end Aug. 4.

Attendance at Weekie Wachee and the Buccaneer Bay water park in Hernando County and Silver Springs in Marion County is up 15 percent to 18 percent this month, said David Stroud, vice president of marketing for Ogden Entertainment of Florida, the owner of the both parks.

The parks usually target Atlanta as a market to advertise to during the summer, so they didn't need to step up their advertising. "I would think we are enjoying our usual Atlanta visitors and then some," said Stroud.

Similarly, at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando attendance is "very strong" compared with last year.

Meanwhile, hotel occupancy rates in Asheville, N.C., three hours outside of Atlanta, were up 3 percent in June. That increase came despite an addition of 237 more rooms since last year and an average rate increase of about $3 per room. The occupancy rate is expected to be up in July as well.

Many promoters say it's too early to gauge how much traffic shifted away from Atlanta to other cities. Lee Daniel, public relations manager for the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said statistics about hotel stays in the area won't be available for another two months.

"Hotels are full," said Sam Johns, executive director of Discover Florida Suncoast Inc., an organization that deals with more than 750 hotel, motel and condo owners from Tarpon Springs to Tierra Verde. "Whether they are full because of the event, I don't know."

Some businesses have been hurt by the Games. For example, the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, N.C., a business offering river rafting, kayaking and canoeing trips and lessons on five area rivers, has seen business drop. Reservations for July on the Ocoee River, which is hosting the whitewater Olympic events, declined by 50 percent.

Other river rafting outfitters are seeing the same decline, even though trips are offered in east Tennessee, about 2{ hours outside of the Atlanta hustle and bustle.

"Much of the Ocoee market is Atlanta and many Atlanta residents are leaving town," said Craig Plocica, spokesman at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The drop could hurt the overall economy of Polk County, Tenn., and neighboring regions. An average visitor spends about $140 a day on vacation goods and services at the river, so the decline is noticeable to everyone from river guides to convenience store owners.

But Plocica is hopeful that after the Games, more visitors will head to the hills. In fact, many venues are hoping to benefit from post-game travelers.

Some figure that visitors from other countries have budgeted for side trips to visit Florida beaches and theme parks, or North Carolina and Tennessee mountain ranges and historic sites.

But others say the cost of Olympics tickets, hotels and dinners in Atlanta will wipe out travel budgets of most visitors, so they'll skip the side trips.

"We don't expect anyone to come right now, while the Games are on," said Charles Wright, the executive director of the Leon County Tourist Development Council. "Some may drive here when it's over, on their way to the Panhandle beaches."

Florida's Panhandle has already benefited from Atlantans seeking close beaches. And business owners in that region, along with those in Tallahassee, hope to pick up post-game travelers.

But even if they don't gain post-game business, promoters figure the biggest payoff is the recognition that the Southeast will get thanks to the hundreds of reporters and photographers who showed up to cover the Games.

"Most important, we're thrilled with all of the publicity we've gotten," said Wright, noting that the council has received e-mail messages from as far away as Australia asking for information about the state's capital.

Tallahassee hosted the British Olympic teams, and with the athletes, a fleet of journalists from Britain. Similarly, television crews filmed Asheville for a German documentary.

And the Everglades National Park attracted reporters, who were visiting the Southeast as part of their Olympic coverage.

"We had a lot of journalists through here doing articles," said Rick Cook, public affairs officer for the Everglades National Park.

"Of course, they were here on hot, humid days with lots of mosquitoes, so who knows what they will write."

_ Information from Times staff researcher Barbara Hijek and staff writer Teresa Burney was used in this report.