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Aquarium boosts Atlanta's downtown

ATLANTA -- Last year, when managers of the Omni Hotel at CNN in Atlanta drew up their budget for 2006, they figured they would sell 300 to 400 room packages to people wanting to visit the Georgia Aquarium.

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ATLANTA -- Last year, when managers of the Omni Hotel at CNN in Atlanta drew up their budget for 2006, they figured they would sell 300 to 400 room packages to people wanting to visit the Georgia Aquarium.

They miscalculated.

As of October, more than 2,000 individuals and families plunked down between $240 and $290 for an Omni deal that includes tickets to the fish tank, an overnight stay at the hotel, breakfast and assorted aquarium-related goodies.

It's a story that hotels and others in Atlanta hospitality tell as they look at the impact the Georgia Aquarium has had on their bottom lines in 2006.

The Georgia Aquarium is the largest indoor aquarium in the world with more than 8 million gallons of water and more than 100,000 aquatic animals on display.

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Today, as the aquarium prepares to celebrate its first anniversary, it can boast another achievement -- drawing more than 3 million people during its first year of operation. Most of it can be attributed to the aquarium's three whale sharks. The Georgia Aquarium is the only place other than Japan and Taiwan where whale sharks are on exhibit.

The aquarium has not only helped in the quest to establish Atlanta as a tourism destination, it has become an economic boon for the city.

"No one anticipated the level of success that the aquarium has brought to downtown," said Lauren Jarrell, spokeswoman for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is responsible for selling the city to conventioneers and tourists. "It brought more visitors downtown, filled our hotel rooms and gave investors a reason to believe that the climate is ripe to move their investment into themarket."

Omni spokesman Mike Sullivan said the hotel has been surprised by the number of aquarium packages it has sold.

"We thought we would see a lot of activity in the summertime when schools were out, but we sold close to 200 packages a month year-round."

Since the aquarium opened, hotel rooms in the city have had a much more steady flow of traffic than the up-and-down swing of convention traffic, hotel and tourism officials said. Downtown restaurants are seating diners who had rarely or never ventured to the area, and conventioneers are flooding the aquarium's ballrooms for opening-day receptions.

Definitive numbers on the aquarium's economic impact are hard to come by, and most of the information is anecdotal. One study, which is being conducted by the aquarium, projects the facility will spur $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion in economic activity during its first five years, aquarium executive director Jeff Swanagan said.

The Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

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