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Tourism up, but budget cuts, bankruptcy filings could take toll

Despite the economic slowdown and drastic drop in business travel, tourism in Mississippi has increased 3% over the past year.

“There are so many reasons why we think tourism in Mississippi has increased, despite the national trend,” said Darienne Wilson, director of tourism development for the Mississippi Development Authority. “The number one reason people come to Mississippi is for a getaway weekend, and it’s usually couples playing golf or heading to casinos. But we also believe that overall, our marketing campaign has paid off. Since Sept. 11, the drive market has increased and people have developed a renewed interest in history and heritage.”

Mississippi’s top five destinations for the state’s $6.3-billion tourism industry are, respectively, the Gulf Coast, Tunica, Vicksburg, Natchez and Jackson. In 2001, casino gross gaming revenues for the Gulf Coast counties totaled slightly more than $1 billion. Mississippi River Counties accounted for $1.43 billion. The combined total was $2.49 billion.

“The reasons for the increase in tourism run the gamut,” Wilson said. “Because of a renewed interest in history and heritage, people after Sept. 11 have wanted to get back to their roots so they’re visiting historical museums and parks. On the other side, casinos are up and I think that’s from our need to escape. There’s the connection with family and friends and the side that says, ‘I don’t want to think about (the terrorist attacks), I just want to have fun.’ It’s a pretty strange phenomenon.”

About 28% of out-of-state visitors travel to Mississippi for a getaway weekend. About 27% of the state’s visitors are visiting a friend or relative, 21% are in Mississippi for a general vacation, and roughly 10% visit the state for a special event. In 2000, 46.6% of leisure visitors headed to the casinos, 31.5% had entertainment in mind, 21.4% went shopping and 17.9% went sightseeing (respondents cited multiple activities), according to MDA research.

Even though she anticipates a reduction in business travel in 2002 because of time, financial and security factors, Wilson said businesses are reconsidering travel options.

“People are either driving or staying at the office,” she said. “But I expect to see leisure travel bounce back full force. I heard a lady say, ‘travel is a luxury we’re not willing to do without’ and those three- to four-day weekend trips make up much of Mississippi’s tourism.”

Tourism bureaus in Natchez, Vicksburg, Columbus and other antebellum Mississippi cities are gearing up for spring pilgrimage season. The only downside in Natchez has been the reorganization last fall of American Classic Voyages, which continues to operate the legendary Delta Queen steamboat on a limited schedule but has shut down operation of its other riverboats, including the Mississippi Queen.

“We had a little pick up in traffic in December, but we’ve been significantly impacted by the bankruptcy filing of American Classic Voyages, and motor coach tours are having a lot of difficulty,” said Walter Tipton, director of the Natchez Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Our hotel bookings during pilgrimage months are usually strong, but we were down about 20% last October and November. Looking forward, we see a little rebound, with the exception of the steamboat market, so we’re focusing more on the associations meetings market.”

Sarah Taylor, assistant media relations manager of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, said tourism business has increased in their region since Sept. 11.

“This may be the result of any number of reasons, including the fact that we have a huge drive-in market and with the reluctance of flying these days, many people seem to be postponing trips involving flight travel in favor of trips within a reasonable driving distance,” Taylor said.

Webster Franklin, president of the Mississippi Tourism Association and executive director of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the Tunica market has fared quite well.

“Like everyone else, we saw some effect from Sept. 11, but then we rebounded faster than most destinations because we are an easy drive from a large portion of the Midwest. About 95% of our market is drive in.”

The tourism trend for Mississippi should continue unless state lawmakers slash the tourism budget an anticipated $2 million this year, Wilson said.

“The average advertising budget for the surrounding states is $7.6 million,” she said. “Ours is now at $6.4 million. The average spent by states around us is $4 million on media while we spent $2 million, which would be cut some more. We can’t afford that because drawing tourism is all about telling people what we have.”

Casinos spend about $100 million annually on advertising, but the percentage spent out of state is unknown and it doesn’t necessarily cover all tourism markets, Wilson said.

“The State of Colorado dropped its state tourism budget about five years ago because state leaders felt the advertising by all the ski resorts was going to be enough,” she said. “In less than two years, Colorado went from the number one ski resort in the country to number five. It takes that combination of public and private spending.”

Tourism is a revenue generator for Mississippi, Franklin said.

“We’re already at a competitive disadvantage budget-wise and if there are drastic budget cuts at a time when tourism has proven to be one of the few industries in the state that has grown, then we’ll have less revenue for the general fund to pay for the other programs the state needs.”

Tourism contributed $488.1 million to general fund tax revenues in fiscal year 2001, a 1.2% increase over the previous year. Nongaming general fund tax revenues accounted for $274.5 million, or 56.2% of the total, and gaming general fund tax revenues accounted for $213.6 million, or 43.8% of the total. City and county tax revenues increased 2.1% to $143.8 million.

“When times are tough, you don’t stop advertising for people to buy your product, you invest more to get a higher return on investment,” Franklin said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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