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Tourism showing growth this summer despite high gas prices

With gas prices so high, you might expect a decline in out-of-state visitors to Mississippi. But most sources say it appears that gas prices are having little — if any — negative impact on state tourism.

“We just do not think it has significantly impacted tourism in the state,” said Molly Gregory, public relations manager for the Mississippi Development Authority Division of Tourism. “I’ve been looking at our welcome center numbers. Out-of-state and international visitors register at welcome centers to get information. Our welcome center registrant numbers are up 3.8% between fiscal year 2003 and fiscal year 2004.”

Over the year the number of visitors registering went down some, and then rebounded. While not everyone who enters the state registers at the welcome centers, it is a good indication of the amount of traffic. Gregory believes the numbers are evidence that the high gas prices haven’t adversely affected travel in the state.

“The welcome centers on the Coast definitely see a lot of activity,” Gregory said. “People are traveling, especially down there on the Coast, wanting to experience restaurants, tourist attractions and casinos. The Meridian Welcome Center has also seen a lot of people come in.”

Stephen Richer, executive director, Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, believes the gas prices are a mixed bag: Some people who are from farther away who traditionally have come by car probably didn’t. On the other hand, people who live closer who, in the past, might have traveled on to destinations in Florida have probably stopped in Mississippi because they didn’t want to spend extra money on gas.

“I think people get used to high gas prices, but they make different choices,” Richer said. “The real question is how many people have decided not to vacation at all because of their budget. That is a national issue. Fortunately for us, we are still one of the most affordable travel destinations in the U.S., according to a survey done by Business Travel News.”

A ranking by that publication puts the Mississippi Gulf Coast at the top of the list for affordability of business travel considering rates for lodging, food and rental cars. Richer said being a six-hour drive from either Atlanta or Houston — two of the biggest cities in the country — is an advantage for the Coast.

Another indication that high gas prices aren’t restricting travel is that hotel room receipts on the Coast are up about 9% for the year. “So, we’re pretty happy,” Richer said. “We also have more than a half-billion dollars worth of tourism product under construction right now with the airport expansion, and construction of the new Hard Rock Casino and Hotel, a new hotel at the Isle of Capri and the George Ohr Museum. Comparably speaking, this is one of the areas of the country that is upgrading its tourism product the most.”

At the other end of the state, growth has also continued despite higher gas prices. “Tunica has not seen a decrease in overall visitation during the summer season due to gas prices,” said Webster Franklin, president and CEO, Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Tunica gaming market has remained stable with high occupancy rates and stable gaming revenue. The opening of the Tunica National Golf and Tennis and the Tunica RiverPark coupled with a strong summer at the Tunica Arena and Exposition Center have all contributed to the continued growth of the Tunica market over the past six months.”

The number of visitors to the Tunica Visitor Center is up 3% for the summer of 2004 compared to a year ago, with top first- time visitors to the destination arriving from Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Alabama, Ohio and Oklahoma.

Jerry Wilkerson, executive director of the Mississippi Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said there doesn’t appear to be a decline in travel.

“I don’t think the volume of gas being sold is down,” Wilkerson said. “The big complaint of our members is that with the high prices, their margins are slimmer. I think one of the things they are seeing is that with prices this high, the motorists are doing a little more shopping around for the best gas prices. So, some of them may have a little different volume. It isn’t necessarily that people aren’t driving as much as trying to find the cheapest price.”

In Natchez, there are indications that tourism was down slightly in July. Walter Tipton, executive director of the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, thinks gas prices might be to blame.

“When gas goes from $1.20 per gallon to $1.80, it does have an impact on tourism,” Tipton said. “But tourism is a fragmented market, so it is difficult to figure how much is related to the price of gas. Our tourism is off about 5%. That’s how much traffic in our Natchez Visitor’s Center is off for the month of July. And I don’t know of any other factors affecting our visitor count in July because it was an average month as far as weather goes. The only difference was the high cost of gas.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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