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Gaming only part of the Tunica experience for visitors

Why consider a getaway to Tunica? For starters, you might enjoy touring the educational exhibits detailing the natural history of the Mississippi River at the Tunica River Park, and then settling into a rocking chair overlooking the largest river in North America.

Guests to the Tunica River Park come from all over the country, and from many foreign countries, as well, says Jerlene Rhodes, executive director of the Tunica River Park.

“We get a lot of Germans in,” Rhodes said. “We also frequently have visitors from Russia, Japan and Africa. This is a museum they really enjoy. It is well put together. We have such a wonderful setting right here on the Mississippi River.

“They really love the experience on the river. The Tunica River Park is set up for them to get the knowledge of the Mississippi, and then take a trip on the river to experience it.”

Rhodes said it isn’t unusual for guests to tour the museum, take a trip on the Tunica River Queen and then, after returning to their hotel room for a while, come back just to sit on the rocking chairs and watch the river go by.

“That is an experience that the guests really love,” Rhodes said.

The Tunica River Park was honored by being named the Southeast Tourism Society 2005 Travel Attraction of the Year.

Rhodes, who grew up in Tunica, said she could never have imagined how much the area would grow after gaming was legalized in the state in 1990.

“I’m so glad I stayed here in my hometown,” Rhodes said.

Tunica’s casinos have turned the county that was once one of the poorest in the country into a thriving resort area. Guests are attracted by competitively priced hotel rooms, gaming activities, fine dining and entertainment that can include nationally known acts like Willie Nelson, who preformed recently in Tunica.

In recent years Tunica leaders have taken windfalls of gaming revenues to build non-gaming amenities like the Tunica River Park to make the area attractive for longer stays. From golf to sailing, there is no shortage of ways to have fun.

Over the past 15 years Tunica has developed into the third-largest gaming resort in the U.S., said Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica CVB. There are nine casino resorts with a total of 6,300 hotel rooms.

“We have spas, golf courses, museums, factory outlet shopping and the best entertainment lineup you will find anywhere in the Southeastern U.S.,” Franklin said. “One of the great thing about Tunica is it is a great bang for your buck. You can come to Tunica and stay in a quality hotel room for about half the price found in a large city. There are great dining opportunities from buffets to fine dining. And if you like to get outside, you can take a cruise on the Mississippi River or play golf. There is something for everybody, and that makes for a great getaway. People tell us that all the time.”

Plenty to see

The average stay of visitors reflects the large variety of activities to enjoy. In 1999, the average visitor stayed 1.6 nights. Today, the average visitor stays 2.89 nights.

“If you have never seen this part of the state, it is a very interesting place to see,” said Lyn Arnold, president and CEO of the Tunica Chamber of Commerce. “There are spectacular sunsets across the Mississippi River. There are ample opportunities for any kind of gaming, shows, and the dining is just fabulous. If you like to take museum tours, there are very good museums here. The Tunica River Park Museum is a history of the Mississippi River, and the Tunica Museum is a history of Tunica from the Ice Age forward.”

There are charming antique and gift shops in the downtown area, and the Casino Factory Shops in the resort area offers a variety of wares.

“Shopping is one of the favorite activities of people on vacation,” Arnold said.

Festivals, sports and more

Then there is a large variety of entertainment. For a lineup of upcoming concerts and other entertainment, go to the Web site www.tunicams.com.

On April 12-14 the Rivergate Festival will be held in downtown Tunica, which includes the Memphis in May barbeque contest that is very popular with visitors. There is music that weekend in the park downtown and Crawfish Alley, a unique venture only open the three days of Rivergate, serves up crawfish, beer and margaritas. Approximately 10,000 to 12,000 people attend the Rivergate Festival.

For the sports crowd, there are three excellent golf courses in the area, and four indoor tennis courts at the Tunica National Golf and Tennis Club. The tennis pro will arrange some match play or tournaments for groups. There are golf packages available from the various hotels in the area.
There are also health and wellness facilities available on a daily basis at the county-owned G.W. Henderson Health & Recreation Center. An indoor, Olympic size swimming pool is available for visitors.

And if sailing is your thing, the Arkabutla Lake is nearby. Arkabutla Lake attracts an estimated two million visitors per year. There are also camping and RV spaces available in the county, and the Tunica Cutoff offers great fishing, as well. There is also sporting clay shooting at The Willows, which is connected with the Grand Casino.

Arnold suggests if you are planning a weekend getaway at Tunica, don’t wait until the last minute to book a room. “They tend to book up quickly for the weekend, particularly weekends when there is a show a lot of people would like to see,” she said.

Some visitors also like taking a trip into Memphis. Arnold said it is just a short short side trip for visitors who want to visit Graceland or hang out on Beale Street in Memphis.

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

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