Mississippi tourism and recreation revenues for fiscal year 1998 totalled $5.1 billion, an increase of 6.5% from 1997. Tourism employment was up 8.8%, with a total of 86,000 tourism-related jobs in the state.
The upswing in tourism was not just related to gaming, as some people might suspect. Total non-gaming jobs in tourism and recreation represent about 63% of jobs. But gaming is a big factor, representing about 41% of statewide tourism and recreation income in 1998.
The word is getting out about what Mississippi has to offer to visitors.
“We’re finding that once visitors come to Mississippi, they like it so much they’re likely to return,” said Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (MDECD). “Our tourism division has done an excellent job advertising Mississippi’s many appealing features.”
“We have seen what can be done, and the potential for even greater things to be done here in Mississippi,” said Steve Martin, associate manager senior with the MDECD Tourism Development Division. “Our office in conjunction with various convention and visitors bureaus throughout Mississippi, the Mississippi Travel Association, the hotelmotel associations, and a variety of other tourism-related groups are all singing from the same sheet in that we recognize the importance of tourism.”
The number of tourism bureaus across the state has greatly increased in recent years as different areas of the state have come to realize their potential for developing tourism. The state has also allocated funding for promoting tourism through advertising, marketing and public relations.
“I think often times people don’t know about the things being done on the national and international level to promote tourism in Mississippi,” Martin said.
Recent free publicity has included an interview on British Broadcasting Corp. about travel opportunities in Mississippi, and a spot on the Today Show that touted Biloxi as one of the hot new travel destinations for 1999. The current issue of Esquire magazine has a fashion shoot done in Clarksdale that ties in with the state’s rich history and contributions to blues music.
Another tool to increase tourism is a travel agent education specialty that others states have found impressive enough to emulate. An insert was placed in Travel Agent magazine, a trade publication for travel agents, for a course to become a Mississippi Certified Travel Specialist. The state tourism staff worked with the magazine to develop a sales course to prepare travel agents to sell Mississippi.
“We recognize travel agents are an extended sales force,” Martin said. “The more they know about Mississippi, the better they can sell Mississippi. And we benefit from increased tourism. Mississippi was the first state to do this. Now other states like Florida and Louisiana have followed our lead and developed their own sales course program, also.”
The Mississippi course has been awarded nine credits for continuing education. Florida was awarded six hours for a similar course, and Louisiana four hours.
“In terms of the quality of information, that bodes well to show how impressed travel agents were with the material we had to present,” Martin said. “We have done follow up surveys with agents, and the results have been very positive. It has done exactly what we wanted. They have become more educated about the product. People are always looking for new experiences in travel, and it is an easier sell for travel agents because they have that depth of knowledge.”
Although tourism is a major force in the economy, Martin said because you don’t see smokestacks or factories, many people don’t realize there is a tremendous impact from all the components involved such as hotel and motels, restaurants, outdoor recreation and fuel purchases.
“We’ve seen is a continual increase in the number of visitors and the revenue that is expended,” Martin said. “Each year it is going to increase. A number one item that contributes to that is advertising simply because at one time we had zero dollars to advertise with. Now we have a budget to do things. You may have the greatest product in the world, but if no one knows about it, it doesn’t do any good.”
Major festivals attract large numbers of visitors to Mississippi. One that attracts national and international visitors, and acclaim for being one of the best music festivals in the country, is the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival held in September in Greenville. The Dixie National Lifestock Show and Rodeo coming up February 1-22 in Jackson is the second-largest lifestock show and the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi River.
Biloxi and Ocean Springs are celebrating their tricentennials this year, and the Coast also has popular annual events like the current Mardi Gras balls and parades, and the Blessing of the Fleet in May.
Natchez has its Steamboat Jubilee and Floozie Day June 26, an event that will be highlighted by the re-enactment of the famous 1870 steamboat race between the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez.
Meridian has the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Country Music Festival May 22-29 that draws top-name performers, and includes a street dance and talent contest. Grenada Lake’s Thunder on Water Safeboating Festival is June 11-13. The annual events includes boat races and big-name entertainment.
Spring and fall pilgrimages are popular throughout the state, as are balloon festivals. And the Canton Flea Market held in May and October is a major draw.
For more information on tourism in Mississippi, call 1-800-WARMEST or visit the Web site Mississippi.org. Also, many communities throughout the state now have web sites to promote special events and general tourism in their area.
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