Rafters with Southeastern Expeditions brave a cold and wild Chattooga in the early months of the season.
Clayton and Rabun County may boast the slogan “where spring spends the summer,” but for local whitewater rafting outfitters it has this year felt more like the place where winter spent the spring.
“We were down 35 percent from where we were last year in March and April,” said Andy Hinton, river operations manager at Southeastern Expeditions. “May was a little less, only down 15-20 percent.”
Of the three whitewater rafting companies in the area, Southeastern Expeditions is the only one based out of Rabun County. Nantahala Outdoor Center Chatooga Outpost and Wildwater Chatooga are both based out of Long Creek, S.C., and both bring a substantial number of tourists to Rabun County.
“I would say that three quarters of the people do spend at least one to two nights when they come rafting,” said Jim Wise, chief executive officer of Wildwater Chattooga. “I would say the Clayton-Dillard side of the river gets more business than the South Carolina side.”
A chief indicator of the success of an area’s tourism sector is the amount of hotel/motel tax collected within that location. According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, Rabun County imposes a five-percent hotel/motel tax, with Clayton, Dillard and Sky Valley receiving the proceeds if collected within their respective city limits and the county if collected anywhere else.
Data collected by the Rabun County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) show a 16 percent increase from last year in hotel/motel tax collected in the county during the first quarter, coming in at $54,745. That puts the overall amount spent on lodging in Rabun County at $1,094,900.
Pete Cleaveland, executive director of the CVB, said that this was a welcome surprise, but not altogether that significant.
“Because the first quarter is typically slow, a 16 percent increase isn’t really all that much,” he said. “If we saw a 16 percent increase during the summer months, that would really be something.”
Though there are still a few weeks left within the second quarter, Cleaveland is predicting that the wetter weather will have deterred many potential visitors, causing numbers that normally would have been climbing into the summer months to remain roughly the same if not slightly lower.
While Cleaveland believes that overall growth in tourism might be slowing, the same rains that dampened business in the first five months of the year have lead to a increase in both the water level of the Chattooga River and the number of people rafting it. Both Hinton and Wise indicated a sharp increase in business thus far into June, citing the raised water levels as being nearly ideal.
“We’re on par for the same numbers as last year,” said Wise. “I think we’re going to be a little busier this summer.”
Wildwater estimates it takes between 6,000-9,000 people down the river during the summer months, with Southeastern Expeditions doing a comparable amount of business. Nantahala Outdoor Center Chattooga Outpost did not respond to requests for their number of visitors.
“June is kind of taking off. I know a few days ago we had around the same number of people who had pre-booked as last year,” Hinton said. “We’re expecting that June and July will be up from last year.”
Other kinds of adventure make their way into Rabun County as well. The Honda Goldwing motorcycle club will be holding its annual meeting here this Thursday through Sunday.
According to a survey conducted by the CVB, outdoor adventure is the second greatest draw for tourists, with the greatest being the slower pace of life associated with the area.
“That was quite a surprise,” said Cleaveland. “Everyone figured it would be outdoor adventure.”
With over 20 percent of jobs in Rabun County benefitting from increased tourism, Cleaveland, Hinton and Wise are all hoping to see both the rivers and local businesses flooded with tourists seeking both relaxation and adventure.