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Mild winters, gaming, amenities are attractive

Coast sets out welcome mat for Canadians

BILOXI – Seven flags over Biloxi? Biloxi, which is celebrating its tricentennial this year, has six flags flying over the city representing the different governments that have held power here over the past 300 years.

In parts of Florida, it is common to see the Canadian flag, especially at retail establishments that cater to the Canadian snowbirds who flock to the Gulf Coast sunshine to escape their long, brutal winters. Canadian newspapers, including Canadian newspapers published in French, can be purchased at major grocery stores.

There’s nothing new about working to attract snowbirds to winter on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But recently efforts have started to target Canadian visitors by touting the Coast as a more affordable alternative to Florida, and one that comes with the bonus of night entertainment at casinos.

If the effort to lure Canadians to the Mississippi Gulf Coast is successful, hotels and retail businesses on the Coast may soon be putting out the Canadian flag as a way to say “Welcome!” to the winter visitors.

More than 200 travel agents from Canada participated in a “CAN-AM-FAM” tour on the Coast the first weekend in November. The fam (short for familiarization) tour was co-sponsored by Imperial Palace Casino and Hotel, and Conquest Vacations, a wholesale tour operator based in Toronto, Ontario.

Conquest Vacations has announced it will begin offering three- and four-night vacation packages that include twice-weekly flights to Gulfport on Canada 3000 Airlines jets. The Toronto-based charters are expected to begin in February.

Jim Pitts, director of tourism marketing for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), said the travel agents who visited the Coast couldn’t stop raving about how much the area has to offer.

“I had a couple of e-mails this morning from people,” Pitts said. “They thought our area was great. I think it went real well.”

Pitts, who spent 25 years working for Air Canada in the Florida market, says Canada remains a virtually untapped market for the Coast. He is particularly enthusiastic about the opportunity to attract Canadian golfers.

“There are a tremendous number of golfers in Canada, and naturally because of their weather situation their courses close early,” Pitts said. “Our weather makes the Coast a natural destination for golf. It also helps that our golf package is so affordable.”

Pitts estimated that golf packages in Mississippi are 40% less expensive than in some areas of Florida. The green fees are less, hotel rates are lower and food is more affordable.

“Canadians are discovering our area, and one of the reasons they are attracted to our areas is that it is affordable,” Pitts said. “With the Canadian dollar at close to 40% less than the U.S. dollar, they are losing 40% of their money when they cross the border. Anything that allows them to get more bang for their buck will be welcome.”

When the weather gets really bad in Canada, the Canadians head south. The number of Canadian visitors to Florida per year averages about 1.2 million to 1.3 million. The long-term winter residents of Florida are mostly retirees. The Canadians that the Coast is hoping to attract to play golf on week to 10-day packages are middle- and upper-income professionals and working people who can afford to come here because of the price. Retirees are also welcome.

“Everything costs less here,” said Pitts, who is hoping that there will be some action on charter jet service from Canada to Gulfport/Biloxi as a result of the Canadian fam tour. “We also have a beach, history, culture and tremendous regional cuisine. Those are all things that Canadians or anyone would be attracted to. It is the whole package that we offer here that will be very attractive to the Canadian market.”

Jarod Crane, a golf professional at the Sunkist Country Club in Biloxi, said he expects the number of Canadian golf packages sold on the Gulf Coast to increase each year.

“It is definitely something that is getting bigger and bigger,” said Crane, who is a native of Canada. “It seems we get a lot from Alberta and Ontario. As the word is spreading with the package providers up there, it is going to get bigger each year.”

Crane said people from Canada want to get out of the cold and play some golf. And if there is something they can do at night, like go to the casinos, that’s an obvious plus.

The outlook is good this winter for lots of snowbird visitors, particularly from the Midwest and Northeast. The Midwest represents the Coast’s largest market for golf package tours.

“There again it is because of people getting out of the weather to come down here to play golf in the winter months,” Pitts said. “We’re also seeing growing interest from the Northeast such as the Buffalo area. We’re even getting a lot of inquiries from California. We are seeing growth in just about every area of the country.”

Pitts said a bad winter is forecast for the Midwest, while a mild winter is expected in the South.

“If they have a bad winter and we have a mild winter, which is forecast this year, it helps us tremendously,” he said.

September golf rounds on the Coast were up 100% from 1998, but the 1998 season was adversely affected by two tropical storms warnings and Hurricane Georges that caused many people to cancel plans for a vacation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Pitts expects October golf rounds to be up about 40%.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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