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Historic river city draws thousands with pilgrimage, B&Bs, gambling

Southern hospitality remains big business in Natchez

Natchez — In 1929 Miss Charlie Compton was quoted in the local newspaper here as saying: “Four tourists were spotted here in Natchez last year. If we preserve the architectural wonders we are blessed with, surely more will come.”

To say Natchez has done just that is a considerable understatement.

Natchez is now the bed and breakfast (B&B) capital of Mississippi. The popular B&B industry is credited with being a tool to preserve the architectural heritage of a city that has more pre-Civil War structures still standing than any other city its size in the country.

And tourists, whether just passing through on a motorcoach trip or those staying at B&Bs and local hotels, spent $5 million this past spring just during the legendary Natchez Pilgrimage.

“Generally during the spring pilgrimage, we have 25,000 to 30,000 visitors who buy tickets,” said Roger Saterstrom, president of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours Inc., the ticketing and reservation’s source for visitors to Natchez. “We have 8,000 to 10,000 tickets sold for the fall pilgrimage tour. Over $5 million in expenditures for just a few weeks of the year, especially in a community under 20,000 people, is tremendous. And, of course, tourism and the B&B industry is an ongoing thing all year long, not just during the pilgrimage.”

Mayor Butch Brown said the B&B business is growing rapidly in Natchez. There are currently 35 B&Bs in Natchez with rooms averaging about $125 to $135 per night. Eight to 10 B&B rooms are being added on average each month.

“It is an upscale business representing 25% of our entire room occupancy,” Brown said. “It is one of the most sought after amenities in our tourism industry. The general public enjoys staying in an antebellum mansion in rooms furnished with antiques. B&Bs have really opened a whole new dimension to tourism in our community. It has helped the tax rolls by virtue of these buildings being restored, and it also adds to our sales tax revenue.”

Tourism is big business

Tourism is undoubtedly the biggest business in Natchez, and employs a lot of people. Brown said one advantage of the tourism industry is that revenues from the industry help the community, but tourism doesn’t require the same investment by the community as other types of development. “It doesn’t take the kind of intense infrastructure development that other kinds of development demand,” Brown said. “Tourists aren’t putting kids in school. It’s clean money.”

The popularity of B&Bs continues to grow in Natchez and across the nation. B&B reservations in Natchez usually include a tour of a historic house, breakfast and, in most situations, a chance to meet local people such as the owners and managers of the local houses.

“There is something very special about the B&B experience,” Saterstrom said. “It seems to be an appeal that is growing nationwide. Certainly it is here. Here in Natchez the number of B&Bs continues to grow. We haven’t seen the upper end. Occupancy at B&Bs tends to be better than in area hotels.”

The Historic Natchez Foundation, which is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of historic structures, promotes converting historic structures to B&Bs because it help revitalize the home and its surrounding neighborhood. A dilapidated structure is an eyesore that reduces the value of surrounding properties and may raise concerns about safety.

“Reclaimed as a B&B, property values go up, security in the neighborhood gets better, and there is pride in the appearance of that property,” Saterstrom said. “It is a win/win proposition.”

Still a small town,

but global hometown

Natchez is a small town, but one whose name conjures up romantic images of the Old South. The city has good name recognition, and is often linked with New Orleans for motorcoach tours of cultural and historic sites.

“Natchez has a cache, an appeal even to people who haven’t been here,” Saterstrom said. “Also Southerners are drawn to this area because it epitomizes the values and heritage of having grown up in the South. It is a way of coming home even if this is not where you grew up. Natchez gets very favorable national publicity, and is well known outside the South. People know us like they know New Orleans. It is a wonderful testament to the heritage of this area how much appeal it still has to leisure travelers as well as serious historians and academic researchers.”

Natchez Pilgrimage Tours helps with the business of promoting tourism in Natchez by handling all kinds of reservations. Besides providing lodging information and reservations, Natchez Pilgrimage Tours also handles 1,000 motorcoach tours per year.

“So many people are taking time to explore,” Saterstrom said. “Natchez is unique not just in Mississippi but in the South and in the world. You can spend the night in a room and often in a bed where someone who had a big influence on the South in the 1840s slept in. You are really walking in the footsteps of history, and I think that is what people are very interested in today. They aren’t just sitting back and looking from outside, but really experiencing it first hand.

“Natchez has a high level of name recognition. Our challenge is to live up to our reputation. That’s what we try to do working with local historic sites, attractions, museums and certainly the B&B properties. But preserving the architecture, the heritage and the history of this area, showcasing it in a friendly way to visitors by welcoming others to experience this beautiful river town, it has succeeded in drawing more people here. And I think that is going to continue to happen.”

Part of what makes Natchez a success story is community participation. Most of the work for the pilgrimage is done by volunteers. “People know hospitality works for Natchez and tourism works for Natchez,” Saterstrom said. “Tourism is considered the number four industry globally. In Mississippi it is number three, quickly approaching number two, and tourism is number one in Natchez. I’m glad to see Natchez takes its business of hospitality seriously.”

About Becky Gillette

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