Thus far the motor coach industry in Mississippi seems to be immune to the influences of a slowing economy. In fact, the motor coach tour business in Mississippi is booming, and is more popular than ever especially on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The total number of bus tours in Mississippi grew from about 47,000 in 1999 representing 1.7 million passengers to 56,284 tours representing 2.1 million visitors in 2000, according to the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) Division of Tourism Development motor coach surveys. That’s an increase of about 12%.
Expenditures by visitors were estimated at $129 million in 1999, compared to $147 million in 2000.
Tour bus growth has been particularly hot in Harrison County on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where bus tour operators report being busier than the ever. The number of tours to the Gulf Coast, most of which include casino visits, has grown from 16,742 in 1999 to 27,070 in 2000.
The other largest tour bus market in the state is Tunica, which saw tours of about 22,000 in both 1999 and 2000. Other major tour bus stops include Natchez, Vicksburg, Grenada, Jackson and Tupelo.
June Johnson, vice president, Jackson Tour and Travel, said business has been extremely busy.
“We find that our motor coaches are booked and overbooked all the time,” Johnson said. “We have not felt any slowdown in our business, and I think it is because a lot of our business is schools and churches. There is not a slowdown with that kind of group. They feel safe. They are traveling with friends. They don’t have to worry about where to park their car, where to eat and where to stay. Everything is taken care of. They don’t have to worry about any of the details of travel.”
Johnson believes that the good value represented by motor coach tours is part of the reason why tours are so popular. Because of group rate discounts, it can be less expensive traveling by motor coach than with personal transportation.
Steve Martin, associate manager senior, MDA, said convenience means a lot.
“It’s just a simple fact that people are rushed for time, and this way someone else makes all the arrangements,” Martin said. “You secure a travel experience, pack your bags, and someone else has done all the work for you.”
Martin said the motor coach industry is changing. While currently the industry is primarily popular with senior citizens and students, middle-aged people are increasingly lining up to board the bus.
“Baby boomers will be next market they will have to go after,” Martin said. “And operators are likely to tailor the experience to what they want. Baby boomers will want more flexibility when taking a package tour. For example, they may not want to have their bags packed every morning at 7 a.m. to be off to another city. Instead they may want to stay several days in one location and do more ‘soft adventure’ activities like biking, hiking and canoeing.”
Part of the increase in motor coach tours is linked to greater advertising efforts both by the state’s tourism department and state casinos. Martin said marketing efforts primarily focus on a 500-mile radius around the state. But, surprisingly, the state also attracts a large number of Canadian motor couch tours.
In addition to attracting more visitors through advertising, Martin said casinos have played a big role in the growth of the state’s motor coach business by dramatically increasing the inventory of hotel rooms. Now there is room for participants in larger conventions to all be housed in one hotel whereas in the past they would likely have been placed in several different hotels.
But Martin says while casinos are important, other parts of the mixture are also important. Other popular attractions include the Stennis Space Center, Beauvoir, the beach and golf resorts.
“If you really look at it, gaming in and of itself is not unique to Mississippi,” Martin said. “Practically every state in U.S. has some type of legalized gaming. I think gaming complements the total package. It’s all tied in.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.