John Bazemore  /  AP file
A grouper at the new Georgia Aquarium is surrounded by smaller fish as it swims past a viewing window. The Georgia Aquarium is considered the world's largest.
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updated 3/31/2006 5:07:02 PM ET 2006-03-31T22:07:02

When the Georgia Aquarium opened nearly four months ago, supporters hoped for a haul of 2 million visitors in the first year.

But they landed an even larger catch - more than 1 million people in its first 98 days. The planners now say 3 million visitors for the year is no longer fishy thinking.

Like a whirlpool, the aquarium that claims to be the world's largest has been drawing visitors to downtown Atlanta from all over. Packaged with nearby attractions, including the newly renovated High Museum of Art, the aquarium is helping Atlanta experience what officials say is the largest tourism boom since the 1996 Olympics.

"The product is unbelievable. It's drawing many people downtown," said Spurgeon Richardson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, of the aquarium. "When those people come downtown, they see the CNN Center and take that tour, they have dinner downtown, they walk around Centennial Olympic Park and see the Children's Museum. All the numbers are up as it relates to downtown."

The popular "Inside CNN" studio tour recently underwent a $5.5 million overhaul to make it more interactive. Another big local draw, the World of Coca-Cola, continues to draw visitors while building a new exhibit that is scheduled to open in 2007. Another attraction that will keep visitors coming is the High Museum, which will display works borrowed from the Louvre later this year.

Atlanta also received a boost in conventioneers and sports fans after Hurricane Katrina forced the Sugar Bowl and more than a dozen major meetings to move here from New Orleans. But the aquarium - which opened Nov. 23 - has played the largest role in bringing tourists to Atlanta lately, Richardson said.

The travel booking Web site Expedia.com reported an increase in Atlanta hotel bookings between December and February, higher than for the same time period in years past. (Expedia would not reveal specific numbers.) Expedia's subsidiary, Hotels.com, reported a surge in weekend hotel bookings for downtown Atlanta from travelers from nearby Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina.

Expedia spokesman David Dennis said he believes the increase is attributable to the aquarium.

"There have been healthy increases in the number of weekend nights booked from people in neighboring states as well as a lot of business travelers bringing their families and spending a long weekend in Atlanta," Dennis said.

The aquarium is considered a major draw because of its sheer size and its special inhabitants, including a pair of juvenile whale sharks, which as adults are known as the world's largest fish. The aquarium says it is the only whale shark exhibit in North America. Also featured are five beluga whales, two of them rescued from an amusement park in Mexico, in an 800,000-gallon tank.

The aquarium was designed to hold 8 million gallons of water and 100,000 fish. By comparison, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago - the nation's largest indoor aquarium for decades - has 5 million gallons and about 20,000 fish.

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City tourism industries have always relied on large attractions such as the aquarium to bring visitors, said Daniel Connolly, an assistant professor at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business.

"For Atlanta, it is a large city but in some cases has lacked the cultural amenities," Connolly said. "Having this new aquarium, that's been a huge boost to the cultural richness for the community, not only for people coming from out of state but also for locals."

Although the aquarium does not have the exact proportion of in-state and out-of-state visitors, officials estimate that about a third consist of out-of-town conventioneers, another third come from people who come to Atlanta to visit family and the remainder are locals.

"Some of the top aquariums in the United States, none have had two months of over 300,000 attendants," said Jeff Swanagan, the aquarium's executive director. "When we see this kind of data we're getting, we're not even in peak season yet, it tells us we're more than an aquarium."

Good marketing also helped bring in visitors to the Georgia Aquarium, said Debra Kerr Fassnacht, executive vice president of the Shedd Aquarium. But she said only time will tell whether the Georgia Aquarium will be able to maintain those high attendance numbers and stay in the same league as Shedd and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which typically draw up to 2 million people each year.

"Georgia has done some things very right. Even before it opened, you couldn't pick up something without reading about it," Fassnacht said. "It's an occurrence that doesn't happen very often."

If You Go:

ATLANTA CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU: (800) 285-2682.

GEORGIA AQUARIUM: 225 Baker St.; (404) 581-4000. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Check Web site for extended hours on selected dates. Adults, $22.75; children, $17 (prices include tax).

HIGH MUSEUM OF ART: 1280 Peachtree St., NE; (404) 733-4444. Tuesday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, noon-5 p.m. Adults, $15; seniors and students, $12; children 6-17, $10. Art from Louvre Museum to be displayed beginning October 2006.

WORLD OF COCA-COLA: 55 Martin Luther King Jr., Drive; (800) 676-2653. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (until 6 p.m. in June, July and August); Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $9; children, 4-11, $5. A new World of Coca-Cola exhibit will open in spring of 2007.

INSIDE CNN: Studio tour at CNN Center, Centennial Olympic Park Drive and Marietta Street; (877) 426-6868. Tours depart daily, every 10 minutes, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., but they often sell out so reservations are recommended. Adults, $12; children 4-17, $9. Children under 4 are not permitted.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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