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Gulf Coast has had more tourists visiting this summer

Mississippi Gulf Coast — There seem to be no complaints regarding the summer tourism season of 2004 even as some businesses begin to slow down with the start of a new school year.

“Things are going well. We have more people coming here and coming from farther away, not just from neighboring states,” said Stephen B. Richer, executive director of the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). “Everybody’s reporting good numbers and we’re happy about that.”

Richer said increased room tax receipts are an indication of how the summer is going. The CVB is maintaining high visibility with more advertising in different television markets and with contests that award trips to the Coast to the winners. There’s currently a contest running on Atlanta television stations and a recent contest in Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine pulled in 25,000 entrants.

“There seems to be a pent-up demand for travel and people are choosing to come here,” he said. “The beginning of school makes a difference but overall this will end up being a great summer.”

At Ship Island Excursions, Capt. Louis Skrmetta says he averaged taking 500 people per day to Ship Island in July after getting off to a slow start with lots of rain in June. He even carried 1,000 people on Saturday and 700 on Sunday last weekend.

“Since the July 4th weekend business has been up,” he said. “We are a true family attraction. The ship is packed with kids in the summer and it’s amazing how the beginning of school affects us.”

Shorter summer season

Skrmetta laments the short summer season due to the early start of school and wishes politicians and school officials would get together and make some changes. His slowest times of the year are the two or three weeks before and after Labor Day. The excursions run every day from the Gulfport Small Craft Harbor to Ship Island from March through October. In 2003, they transported 64,000 passengers on the 50-minute trip and the captain thinks that number will be higher for 2004. He runs two boats every day and a third on weekends.

“The price of fuel didn’t affect us as much as I thought it would this summer,” he added. “We burn 70 gallons per hour and make six one-way trips each day.”

Ship Island is part of the National Barrier Islands Seashore Park and Ship Island Excursion fees are approved by the Park Service. Skrmetta says they are kept low and notes that beach rentals and food service are available on the island at cheaper prices than on the mainland. This summer, for the first time in eight years, a lifeguard is on duty on the island.

“It’s been a really good season for seeing dolphins and people love that,” he said. “Plus, we have a park interpreter on board who gives commentary and the water off the island is clear and beautiful this year.”

Skrmetta carries on a proud family business that was begun on 1926 by his grandfather, a Croatian immigrant from the Dalmatian Coast where there have been mariners since the time of the Romans. The current captain is pleased to beat the time of 1 hour, 45 minutes that it took his grandfather to make the trip to Ship Island.

Around the South, around the world

With 148 rooms, the Holiday Inn Express in Biloxi is having a good summer, according to front desk manager Jessie Marino. He says they’re seeing a lot of visitors from Texas and Florida and even some international guests from England and France.

“We’re having a high occupancy rate and are sold out most every weekend and some during the week too,” he said. “We have business people and pleasure group trips that are mostly older people so school starting back won’t make much difference to us.”

Jim Pitts, director of marketing and sales at the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport, says June passenger boardings were up 6.3% from last year and July boardings were up 5%.

“I think our numbers will continue to increase and August will be strong too,” he said. “With a lot of airports reporting flat or declining numbers, we’re happy to see these increases. We continue to improve our service and it’s an exciting time to be here.”

The airport has leisure, business and military travel and Pitts isn’t sure how many passenger boardings are vacation travel.

McElroy’s Harbor House, located in the small craft harbor in Biloxi, has been a popular place for seafood since 1974. Known for stuffed flounder and a fisherman’s seafood platter, McElroy’s was featured in the May-June issue of Coastal Living as one of “25 Seafood Dives.” Long time manager Laura Manuel says the magazine exposure was a positive thing and added to a good summer.

“We’ve been very busy and business is better than last year,” she said. “We’ll see a little drop with the start of school, but not much because we have a lot of local business and people who come every day.”

Sitting in the shadow of the Hard Rock Casino’s bustling construction site, Manuel said, has not hurt the restaurant’s business but has impacted their parking space.

July is the busiest month of the year at Mississippi’s only children’s museum, the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport, according to spokeswoman Mary Ann Caldwell. The hands-on children’s museum sees 300 to 500 visitors each day and those numbers are spilling into August this summer.

During the school year, 150 visitors come through each day, some of them in school groups.

“We’re expecting 400 each day this year because of the exciting exhibit that begins on September 20 and runs through December 18,” she said. “It’s the Magic School Bus Kicks up a Storm. It was put together by the Children’s Museum of Houston and is traveling to 36 cities, including the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, a 100-year-old museum. We’re playing with the big boys now.”

Caldwell said the exhibit depicts the inside of a hurricane and is appropriate for this area this time of year. It will take up all the space in the gymnasium and is expected to draw visitors from three states.

“Thanks to some major sponsors, we will be able to keep admission fees low,” she added.

Visitation to Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis home, along with the Confederate Museum and Presidential Library, is up 1% or 2% for July. Jennifer Myers, tours and programs coordinator, said the Biloxi attraction got off to a shaky start this summer after a fire kept the main attraction closed from June 5 until July 2.

“We were down about 35% in June but we brought it all back in July,” she said. “Our average attendance is 275 each day.”

Myers said the fire was contained to the front door of the Confederate President’s final home and caused over $75,000 of damage. The air conditioning pulled smoke and soot through the Victorian structure, damaging drapes, bedding and artwork. Everything that was damaged is being cleaned and restored and the house is open.

“We have our two biggest special events still to come,” she said. “We have the Fall Muster October 16 and 17, and the Festival of Trees and Lights December 1-5.”

The festival in December is new and will be the first fundraiser at Beauvoir in a long time, Myers said. It will include 20 specially decorated Christmas trees and 20 wreaths on display. The trees and wreaths will be auctioned off at a gala on Dec. 1.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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