JACKSON — With 3,000 hotel rooms now under construction and over 150,000 visitors in Mississippi each day looking for entertainment, the state’s tourism director doesn’t see Mississippi’s tourism industry slowing down with the economy.
“We don’t think we’re through with our growth spurt, and we think there’s a huge potential for additional growth in visitors and tourism,” said Darienne Wilson, director of tourism development for the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). “I do think in terms of construction and new facilities we`re leveling off, but not in terms of new visitors and tourism.”
Since 1992 when the state had a zero advertising budget for tourism, Mississippi’s tourism industry has become a multi-billion dollar business — $6.1 billion in FY2000, which was up 5% from FY1999. The number of people making a living in the tourism industry has likewise increased — from 89,600 in FY1999 to 94,100 people in FY2000.
A recent survey by D.K. Shiflett & Associates commissioned by the state shows that 32 million people visited Mississippi in 1999, spending an average of $92 per person per day. One of the study’s most interesting points, said Wilson, is the 11.1% increase in overnight stays.
“If you grow 2% to 3% in a year, that’s big, so an 11% increase in the number of people spending the night is huge,” she said. “People are not passing through on their way to somewhere else. They’re coming to Mississippi for the weekend and that’s a big sign of progress.”
The state’s 30 casinos have played a huge role in attracting visitors to the state, said Wilson, but during her first year as tourism director she has tried to promote the whole package — gaming, history, culture, shopping and outdoor recreation like hunting, fishing, golfing and cycling.
In Hattiesburg, not typically considered a tourist town, golf is drawing enthusiasts from Canada and U.S. northern cities to this southern Mississippi town, thanks in part to help from the state to market the area. The two most popular courses, Canebrake Golf Club and Timberton Golf Club, have received stamps of approval from Golf Digest magazine. Canebrake was rated the No. 2 most affordable public course in the nation by the magazine in 1999, and Timberton Golf Club was given a 4-1/2 out of five rating last year, the only course in Mississippi and Louisiana to receive such a high mark, said Rick Taylor, executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB).
The area’s new Longleaf Trace, a 39-mile converted railroad bed built through the federal Rails to Trails program, is another big draw, as is the new Lake Terrace Convention Center for business meetings and other events, said Taylor.
Despite the slowdown in the economy, Taylor said Hattiesburg has seen an increase in hotel rooms sales and meetings and conventions bookings. During FY2000, tourism tax in Hattiesburg generated $2.65 million, a huge increase from $158,085 in 1990-1991 when the Hattiesburg CVB began operation.
The Delta, with its rich musical and cultural heritage, is also welcoming a large number of visitors, many from overseas who want to learn more about Mississippi’s uniqueness.
“Unlike a lot of areas in the state, this area has a great appeal to international visitors because we’re the birthplace of the blues,” said Bill Seratt, executive director of the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our market is very stable because there is a great interest in cultural tourism.”
Tourism revenue there has grown about 40% in seven years, and the number of hotel rooms has doubled to 1,150 since 1992 when the local CVB was created. The increase in hotel rooms is due in part to the Legislature’s land-based requirements for the two casinos in Greenville, but visitors to the area are finding a package of attractions in addition to gaming, among them Cotton Row on Main Street developed for trading cotton, the C&G Railroad Depot and the Wetherbee House on the National Register of Historical Places.
In addition to advertising his county, Seratt works with the eight-city Mississippi Delta Tourism Association to market the entire area. This regional partnership gives visitors a two- or three-day itinerary to hub-and-spoke out around the Delta and into North Mississippi and brings in more tourist dollars for all the counties, he said.
Commanding the biggest share of tourism dollars is the Gulf Coast, and the significant increase in tourists in the last decade has not gone unnoticed nationally. Stephen Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB, can name a number of recognitions captured by the area recently:
– Saltwater Sportsman Magazine’s rating of the Gulf Coast as one of top 20 fishing vacation destinations worldwide,
– “Fodor’s” naming the Coast as one of the top three up-and-coming domestic destinations behind Las Vegas and Orlando,
– Successful Meetings Magazine’s rating of the Coast as one of the top 10 spots for meetings in the new millennium, and a survey by Business Travel News which found Biloxi/Gulfport the most affordable meeting destination based on cost.
Tourists visit the Coast for vacation packages offered by casinos, to play golf, dine on the $7.2-million StarShip yacht, take their children to the new Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, and attend Mardi Gras parades, Cruisin’ The Coast and many other events held throughout the year, said Richer. Tourists are drawn to these Gulf Coast attractions and others throughout Mississippi thanks to the money invested by the state in tourism advertising, he said.
“The more advertising we do, the more visitors we get,” he said.
MDA’s tourism advertising budget dropped slightly from $9.2 million in FY2000 to $8.9 million in FY2001, and many in the industry fear there are deeper cuts to come during this legislative session. If the state’s FY2002 budget is approved as recommended, the tourism advertising budget would be cut by 50%, sending Mississippi back to almost 40th in the country, said Wilson.
“Obviously there are a lot of issues the Legislature has to face, but we feel we generate revenue for the state,” she said. “Our figures show that for every dollar we spend on advertising, $57 comes back to the general fund in Mississippi.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at email@example.com or (601) 364-1027.