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Tourism in state gets boost from unexpected sources

Hurricane Katrina put a dent in Mississippi’s tourism business. But it also boosted a little known segment of the industry.

VolunTourism, or rather tourism by default, has boosted the coffers of the state in an unusual way.

“We have over 100,000 extra people in the state right now, whether evacuees, construction workers, FEMA workers or other volunteers,” said Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) tourism director Craig Ray. “They’re staying in hotels, eating, shopping and getting gasoline. I won’t see firm numbers until February, but I believe VolunTourism will make a significant impact on tourism dollars.”

Quite simply, VolunTourism is a combination of volunteerism and tourism and integrates the best of travel and tourism — arts, culture, geography, heritage sites, the natural environment and recreation — with the opportunity to serve and enhance the destination. As a result of the August 29 catastrophic Hurricane Katrina, it refers to Mississippi’s displaced people, places and things.

“My guess is we’ll continue to see VolunTourism impact the state for a couple of years,” said Ray. “There were 70,000 homes affected alone, and volunteers will help rebuild.”

After the storm damage was assessed, 75% of Mississippi tourism properties were open for business.

“Traditional travelers still want to travel, gamble and play golf, so for now they’re going to different parts of the state,” said Ray. “We were able to retain much of our business in the state post-Katrina.”

Five or six Mississippi Gulf Coast casinos should be open by the end of January, and some new casinos are already on the books. By the end of 2006, Ray predicts 90% to 95% of the state will be open for business.

In the first week of January, MDA will launch four brand-new commercials on TBS, Turner South and several other networks with a 750-mile radius, focusing on food, casinos and outdoor activities including golf. The ads will run through April.

“As opposed to the old ads, ‘Feels like coming home’ or just ‘Come see our state’ because it’s a great place to visit, we’re focusing on niches that make us so enticing to tourists,” said Ray.

Anne Coggins, director of meetings and conventions for the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), said bookings for 2006 “are great and we’re expecting a banner year.”

This fall, the first movie production to take advantage of legislation passed last year offering rebates for filmmakers in Mississippi hit the big screen in a big way. “Walk the Line,” the story of Johnny and June Carter Cash is already creating Oscar buzz for its lead stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.

“It was a great movie to be the first one to participate in the rebate program,” said Mississippi film commissioner Ward Emling. “The film crew spent 12 to 13 days filming about one-third of the movie’s scenes here. With our increased movie production in Mississippi, we’re growing another tourism attraction.”

To add to its equine tourism business, the Jackson CVB recently landed the National Appaloosa Horse Club, a 13-day show in 2008 expected to generate $1 million per day in economic impact.

“This is probably the biggest piece of equine business the Jackson CVB has been involved in bringing to the city,” said Jackson CVB president and CEO Wanda Collier-Wilson. “We think it will put the bureau and the City of Jackson in a position to seriously vie for additional high profile groups, and it will certainly give us wonderful exposure.”

MDA helped the Jackson CVB land the prestigious horse show, which organizers chose over a venue in Las Vegas.

“We’re very excited we landed it, and we’re looking forward to help sponsor the event and are anticipating more like it,” said Ray. “We have lots of good things to look forward to in Mississippi tourism in 2006.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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