MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — In Biloxi alone the economic impact of Mardi Gras celebrations this month is estimated at more than $6 million. But make no mistake. Mardi Gras is a deeply rooted tradition on the Coast that has a lot more to do with having fun than making money.
“I love Mardi Gras,” says Beverly Martin, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Gaming Association and Grand Marshall of the Long Beach Carnival Association’s parade this year. “I’ve notice you either love it or hate it. People who have lived here a long time, we love Mardi Gras. Some new people just don’t have the passion for it that we have. I’m assuming that is because they didn’t grow up with it.”
Someone new to the area may be clueless as to what the big fuss is all about. They may not understand why, for example, an estimated 150,000 people lines the parade routes in Biloxi on Fat Tuesday, which is Feb. 27 this year. Watching the parades and catching the free “throws” such as doubloons and beads is only part of the fun. What is more important is the chance to visit and party with old and new friends, family members and everyone else in the city. It’s a huge street party that lasts from the first morning parade until the last parade ends that evening.
“It’s all the festivity of Christmas of Christmas and the excitement of New Year’s rolled into one event,” said Keith Williams, captain of the Gulf Coast Carnival Association. “To see the good times of the people in the street makes it a day that if you haven’t experienced, you need to, and if you have, you’ll want to come back for more.”
Although Mobile, Ala., claims to have the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the New World, some historians point to evidence that it was first celebrated on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by early explorers in 1699.
No matter who was first, the Coast takes Mardi Gras seriously. Schools and most businesses close for the holiday. Although it isn’t a federal holiday, even the U.S. Post Office in Biloxi is closed on Fat Tuesday. The tens of thousands of people lining the streets would prevent mail trucks from moving even if people were really keen to get mail that day.
The advent of casinos has influenced Mardi Gras. The casino parade floats are popular as the casinos are generous and have good “throws” including items such as drink huggies and doubloons redeemable for free drinks. And while the casinos haven’t calculated the economic impact Mardi Gras has on their business, it does help their bottom line.
“Number one, people are off work,” says Martin. “Anytime you have a holiday people are looking for entertainment. Those who don’t want to participate in Mardi Gras will go to casinos for entertainment. And those people who do participate in Mardi Gras will go into the casinos between parades. So we get the Mardi Gras participants as well as the non-Mardi Gras participants. The casinos I talked to were sure it brought in a lot of out-of-towners. They haven’t really been able to measure it, but the economic impact is good for the casinos.”
Stephen B. Richer, CTP, executive director, Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, says Mardi Gras is great for the reputation of the Coast as a fun place to visit. In 2000 the Harrison County Tourism Commission hosted visiting travel writers during Mardi Gras, and let them experience first hand the fun of riding on a float and throwing out goodies to the crowd.
As a result, the Coast received coverage in nine publications, including a two-page spread in Southern Living, with a media value estimated at more than $130,000.
“Mardi Gras has tremendous value,” Richter said. “What this has done is position us as one of the fun destinations in the South. What is more fun than Mardi Gras and all of the parades?”
Besides parades, Mardi Gras balls are also very popular. Bill Holmes, executive director, Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center, said 12 Mardi Gras balls are hosted at the coliseum with more than 13,000 people in attendance.
Holmes, who is parade chairman for the Gulf Coast Carnival Association, said the economic impact isn’t just confined to Biloxi. Nine other coastal communities also celebrate Mardi Gras.
“Mardi Gras is perhaps the largest free spectator show in the world,” Holmes said. “People can come and see a multitude of various colored and decorated floats, they have opportunity to catch a variety of throws, and they can sit out and enjoy themselves with 149,000 other people with a feeling of being very safe because there is security on every block.”
Except for casinos, convenience stores and fast food restaurants, most businesses are closed on Fat Tuesday. But Mayor A.J. Holloway said he has never heard a single business complain about having to close down for Mardi Gras.
“It is a big holiday for the City of Biloxi,” Holloway said. “Besides the three parades on Mardi Gras day, you have the six to eight weeks building up to Mardi including balls and all the parades. With the building of floats, renting of clothing, rental of hotel rooms, and even sales of king cakes in grocery stories, Mardi Gras provides a huge retail boost. It touches a lot of different businesses. You add it all up and it is a pretty good impact.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.