Lower gasoline prices this summer are expected to result in Americans hitting the highways in record numbers, boosting tourism in Mississippi and other states.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is predicting that highway travel this summer will increase 3.8% over 1997 with nearly 1.4 trillion miles logged on U.S. highways between June and August.
The DOE estimates that lower oil prices could save American consumers $12 billion in energy costs this year, an average of $105 per household.
The travel increase is expected because of low gasoline prices combined with high consumer confidence and no sign of the economy weakening.
George Smith, director of tourism development for the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, said a large portion of Mississippi tourism is a drive-in market.
“Naturally, a drop in the price of gasoline is great for tourism,” Smith said. “When tourists have extra money to spend, they tend to stay longer at their destination. So we expect this summer to be one of our best.”
Steve Richer, executive director of the Harrison County Tourism Commission, said lower gas prices always have a impact. But he believes it is a minor thing.
“The lower gas prices are an overall plus, but I don’t think people focus on saving just a few dollars here and there,” Richer said. “What they really focus on is where they want to go. The single most critical thing for us is do people want to come to the Mississippi Gulf Coast? Does it have a high demand? I think we’re doing better and better because of the positive visibility we have.”
Richer expects the most results from a cooperative marketing agreement expected to reach more than five million customers at 500 Pizza Hut restaurants in the South. Prizes awarding trips to the Coast will be awarded in 70 markets in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Texas.
Steve Watson, executive director of the Metro Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, also believes factors other than the price of gas will have the biggest impact on summer tourism. He said the most important thing is to give people special events and activities that will draw them to Jackson.
“We have the Great Jackson Renaissance Program running this summer with five events including Splendors of Versailles,” Watson said.
Besides the Versailles exhibit, other programs planned this summer in Jackson include Our Nation’s Colors, A Celebration of American Painting, at the Mississippi Museum of Art, March 7-July 27; the USA International Ballet competition, June 13-28; Alsace to America, Discovery of a Southern Jewish Heritage exhibition at the Jewish Heritage Museum, May 29-August 1; the Kings’ Astronomers, the Rival Observatories of Louis XVI & Charles II, at the Russell C. Davis Planetarium, April 3-Sept. 3; and De’Prizonnye’ Vinni Jan De’Koule’lib, the African Creole Presence in Mississippi and Louisiana, 1699 to the present, Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, April 1-Aug. 31.
“We’re expecting an outstanding summer comparable to the Palaces of St. Petersburg in 1996,” Watson said. “We had 550,000 visitors to that exhibit. Hopefully with additional exhibits and activities this summer, we will meet that same level.”