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Hittin’ the trail: initiatives to highlight state’s heritage underway

The Blues Trail now under development in Mississippi is right on target with the heritage and cultural tourism emphasis that is sweeping the nation. Tourism and arts leaders hope this trail is the first of several trails that will spotlight many of the state’s cultural icons.

The idea behind these trails is to provide a self-guided tour for visitors that will take them on a carefully planned, documented and choreographed journey to destinations associated with certain topics. These sites will be designated with official plagues. Maps and guides will be provided.

The forthcoming Blues Trails and others to follow is a program being put together through the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism with input from the Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC). Wording for the blues markers is being drafted and rights of entry are being secured to place the markers on private property as needed.

“The idea is that Mississippi has an abundance of cultural things,” said MAC executive director Malcolm White. “The first piece is the blues and the trail will be a traveling story of the blues that will lead all over the state, commemorating blues landmarks.”

White, who serves on the state’s Blues Commission, says the commemorative landmarks include birth places and burial sites of blues artists along with places where the music was developed and performed. He hopes the trail sites will also connect to cellular telephones with famous state performers such as Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones telling the blues story.

Tourism director Craig Ray says his agency has identified 100 markers for the Blues Trail, the first of three trails they’re currently developing. “Heritage and cultural tourism is very big everywhere. It has become a popular component of tourism,” he said. “It fits in perfectly with all that we have in Mississippi. It’s what we had before we had golf courses and casinos.”

The state’s blues heritage is being promoted more and more in anticipation of the trail’s opening. It was recently showcased at the Chicago Blues Festival in downtown Chicago at Grant Park. The Tourism Division along with partners Mississippi Delta Tourism Association, Y’all magazine, Amtrak, 930 Blues Club, Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Mississippi Blues Commission distributed marketing materials from the state booth during the festival.

“The response from the visitors to our booth assured us that we definitely needed to be there promoting our rich blues heritage,” said Alex Thomas, associate manager for heritage development with MDA. “Each year the festival attracts over 600,000 visitors over the four day period and we see a great deal of traffic at our booth. We know the audience is interested in the blues and view this as a tremendous opportunity.”

White says the Blues Trail is a subset of the overall development of music trails and trails for other forms of music will follow. Rock and roll and country music are distinct possibilities, based on the state’s many associations with legendary artists in these fields.

Themes being considered for future trails include the state’s outstanding literary heritage, the War Between the States and civil rights. “It’s exciting to say those two —Civil War and civil rights — in the same breath,” White said. “That says a lot about who we are and how far we’ve come.”

He notes that cultural tourism is a new product for Mississippi and that everyone from the governor down is getting on the bandwagon. Indeed, Gov. Haley Barbour will take over the chairmanship of the Southern Governors Conference this month and plans to highlight heritage and cultural tourism as a key initiative.

“I talk about it all the time and how it connects to the arts and every day life. It’s not a separate thing,” White said. “It’s exciting to be in state government now. There’s a cultural revolution and we’re finally acknowledging it and looking at it as an economic development tool.”

White says the state can be a leader in cultural tourism, using it to replace some traditional industries that are shutting down or relocating. “I see it as a huge economic development engine. It’s clean and people leave with good memories,” he said. “We’re all working on it together.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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