Last year, more than 2.4 million visitors zipped through Mississippi’s welcome centers and dropped $5.6 billion in the state’s tourism and recreation coffers.
The state also saw a healthy 11% increase in accommodations, representing the highest growth rate in the nation, as the number of hotel/motel rooms jumped from 44,386 to 49,362. With the “build-it-and-they-will-come” strategy, investors guessed right. In one year, tourism and recreation income statewide increased 8.5%, from $5.1 billion to $5.6 billion.
Of the folks that stopped to register, Tennesseans were not listed among the most represented states. Instead, residents from Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Texas and Georgia were.
“It’s always amazing to us that we don’t have more registrants from Tennessee, but everybody that stops does not register,” said Sandra Bynum, domestic public relations manager of tourism development at Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development.
Canada, Germany and England represented the most international visitors, accounting for more than 60% of all registrants. “We have a high percentage of Canadians — 26% last year — that travel through Mississippi,” Bynum said.
In FY1999, tourism and recreation accounted for 88,800 jobs, a 3.3% increase from the previous year. Tourism and recreation general fund tax revenues totaled $444 million, reflecting a 9% increase.
Nearly 56 million patrons tried their luck at state-licensed casinos, mostly in Tunica County and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. According to figures from the Mississippi Gaming Commission, Gulf Coast casino revenue reached $1.5 billion by the end of 1999.
“It’s only seven years old, but the Gulf Coast’s gaming industry has developed well past infancy, approaching the $2.5 billion mark for casino revenue since its inception,” said Bynum. “Across the board, Mississippi is seeing sensational growth. By the end of 1999, the Gulf Coast was home to about 18,000 hotel rooms, up from 6,000 rooms in 1992. By 2000, Mississippi Gulf Coast room inventories are expected to equal those of Atlantic City and Reno.”
Gross gaming revenues in FY1999 were $2.3 billion, an increase of 12% over the previous year, and accounted for 42% of the state’s total tourism and recreation income. Gaming jobs represented an estimated 37% of tourism and recreation employment and gaming general fund tax revenues totaled $188 million, a 42% increase. During the same time period, about $3.8 billion was invested in the state’s 29 licensed casinos, including land purchase, facilities and gaming equipment.
“It’s interesting to note that gaming did not represent more of a piece of the tourism and recreation pie than the statistics showed,” said Bynum. “That proves there’s more than just gaming in Mississippi. We’re glad to have the catalyst, but we have so much more to offer in this state.”
Nongaming revenues totaled $3.2 billion, a 6% increase over FY1998, nongaming jobs represented an estimated 63% of the state’s tourism and recreation workforce, and nongaming general fund tax revenues totaled $257 million, or 58% of tax revenues.
Capitalizing on an influx of visitors to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, MDECD recently announced a unique partnership that links the John C. Stennis Space Center with the state’s tourism division. The newly expanded exhibit highlights Mississippians’ role in America’s lunar landing.
“We’re extremely excited because that will be a federal and state partnership,” said Bynum. “We hope to have it finished by the end of the year. It will give people even another opportunity to stop at the visitor’s center.”
A new building will be constructed at the I-10 Welcome Center and will serve as a point of origin for all space center tours. A full-scale model of a Lunar Lander Vehicle, once used to train for Apollo missions, is among the many displays. Visitors will have access to a major new exhibit developed by the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command that will feature an under-the-sea experience and weather forecasting center.
“We consider NASA’s use of the I-10 Welcome Center in Hancock County to be an important step in increasing the volume and enhancing the value of Mississippi tourism efforts,” said J.C. Burns, executive director of MDECD. “This will capitalize on the over 700,000 tourists who visit this particular welcome center annually.”
Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown said the arrangement will allow more extensive use of the welcome center facilities and “a means to add additional parking that can be set aside for tour buses.”
Other new offerings from Mississippi’s tourism division include:
• New businesses — a pottery studio and a sports bar — that recently opened in Clarksdale Station, next door to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale — the blues crossroads of Mississippi’s Delta.
• A recently released 45-minute audio walking tour for Oxford visitors that highlights the city’s historic downtown square and the University of Mississippi’s 150-year history.
• A showcase of masks and their origins from around the world at “Spirit of the Mask,” an exhibit on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson until October.
• According to Golf Digest, the nation’s second best affordable public golf course, with public green fees of $50 or less, at Hattiesburg’s Canebrake Golf Club.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.