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Sporting events, golf and fishing expected to highlight travel season

Make way for the tourists

South Mississippi tourism officials are keeping a wary eye on higher gas prices that could affect the number of travelers visiting the state. But so far it appears that a strong economy has tempered the impact of higher gas prices, and that most people are going ahead with vacation plans without much concern about spending more for gas.

“Overall we are excited about this summer,” said Patrick Bell, assistant director of Hattiesburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re looking at this year being very good for Hattiesburg. We have seen the season start early this year. Normally hotel occupancy starts picking up in March and April. This year we have seen it pick up early in February which indicates the season is extending itself earlier.”

Hattiesburg has been positioning itself as a golf destination. January and February brought a lot of snowbirds from the Midwest, particularly Chicago and St. Louis. Bell said they believe much of the increase in hotel occupancy has been a result of the attraction of Hattiesburg’s golf courses.

Sports also play big into the summer agenda for Hattiesburg which has several different youth sports tournaments on tap including the Dizzy Dean Youth Baseball World Series and the ASA Softball Tournament, girls 14 and under slow pitch softball. Bell said that they have seen tournaments for younger players bring the largest number of family visitors.

“That’s why we try to go after the tournaments for youth sports,” he said.

Several tourism improvements are underway in the Pine Belt area. A new Armed Forces Museum is being built at Camp Shelby, and the Hattiesburg Zoo is undergoing major improvements. A 33-mile Rails to Trails from Hattiesburg to Prentiss will open soon for people to enjoy walking, hiking, biking and roller blading off the streets. Similar trails nearby in Louisiana have proven to be a big hit.

The Lake Terrace Convention Center in Hattiesburg is now in its second year of operation, and has been successful in bringing large numbers of delegates to Hattiesburg.

“The whole concept of the convention center was that it be built to be an economic development tool for Hattiesburg, and that is what we are seeing,” Bell said. “We estimate each delegate spends about $130 per day. The number of delegates is exceeding last year, and that benefits the whole community.”

Like Hattiesburg, Natchez is expecting sporting events to draw large numbers of visitors this year.

“While I am a little concerned about gas prices, we are expecting a fairly good season for a couple of reasons,” said Walter Tipton, executive director of the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) “One, we have the National Men’s Elite Bicycle Championship in May, right after Olympic pre-trials being held in Jackson. So, that is a big event for us.”

The CVB also now has a golf attraction to market, the new Beau Pre Golf Course. Tipton said they have been encouraged by good reviews from the large number of golfers coming to Beau Pre, which opened in July 1999.

Lady Luck in Natchez has been purchased by the Isle of Capri, which is expected to do targeted marketing to groups of people the casino has on its large direct mail lists. That is expected to have a positive impact on drawing more visitors to Natchez.

Natchez has also partnered with CVBs in Jackson, Ridgeland, Kosciusko, and Tupelo to form the Natchez Trace Tourism Compact for marketing the Natchez Trace. The Trace is a scenic byway where highway billboards aren’t allowed. But the Natchez Trace Tourism Compact is working on developing some brochures and signage to draw attention to historic attractions such as the Grand Gulf Military Park and the Windsor Ruins. Also, the Mississippi Legislature is currently considering a bill to complete the last six miles of the Trace into Natchez.

The famous Natchez Spring Pilgrimage of antebellum homes continues until April 8. A Blues Festival is planned April 14-16. An Opera Festival goes throughout the month of May, and there is a Natchez Literary Celebration and Natchez Bicycle Classic, a national bike race, in June. There is a birding festival in August and the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race and Fall Pilgrimage in October.

On the Coast there have been concerns about how a boycott threatened over the Rebel flag issues could impact tourism. A boycott has been threatened by African Americans upset about the Confederate flag being flown on the beach. Recently the Coast has come in for national publicity over the flag issue, which has been hotly debated in the local press. However, so far advance bookings haven’t suffered.

“We’re hearing good reports from hotels as far as advance bookings,” said Stephen B. Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The visibility of the destination is higher than ever. We have direct flights from Canada starting April 7 running until June that will start back up again in October.”

Richter said word is getting out about the diversity of tourism products available on the Coast. There have been several articles in the national press recently featuring Coast golf courses and fishing.

“There was a good article this month in Salt Water Sportsman called the ‘Chandeleur Connection,’” Richter said. “Fishing has really been picking up a lot.”

Bookings of major conventions continues to be healthy. One major convention will be the Southern Legislative Conference of Councils of State Governments August 5-9. Legislators from all of the states in the South are expected for the convention.

Hancock County is also expecting a busy tourism season. The Hancock County Tourism and Development Bureau is seeking special legislation to allow a 2% tax on food and beverages that would be used to promote tourism. The proposal is supported by 27 local restaurant owners.

The bureau has booked 92 bus tours for the year. Bay St. Louis will be featured in an upcoming issue of Coastal Living Magazine, and an article on Hancock County antique businesses and restaurants is expected to be published soon in Southern Living. The bureau’s summer promotion: “2000 & Beyond: A Celestial Tour of Hancock County” will be tied to the reopening of the Visitors Center at Stennis Space Center.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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