The Mississippi Senate now has a committee dedicated to promoting tourism across the state.
The Senate Tourism Committee was one of a handful of new committees Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant unveiled just before the opening gavel of the 2008 session. The House has had a committee on tourism for several years.
Nicole Learson, director of marketing for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, met Bryant’s announcement with enthusiasm.
“That was such a boost as to how the state sees tourism statewide, not just on the Coast,” Learson said. “We now have industry folks, who were previously unaffiliated with tourism, looking at tourism as a top priority.”
According to figures from the Tourism Division of the Mississippi Development Authority, 22 million tourists visited Mississippi in 2007 and spent a total of $5.7 billion. Total tax revenue from the tourism industry for 2007 was $417 million. Tourism was responsible for more than 85,000 direct jobs with a payroll of $1.7 billion, good enough to make it Mississippi’s sixth-largest employer.
“That’s big business,” said Susan Speed, MTA executive director. “It’s worth the state investing in it.”
Bryant and Speed joined 20 senators in December for a “familiarization tour,” a fact-finding and sightseeing trip from Jackson to Vicksburg to Port Gibson and Natchez. Senators met with local economic development officials in each town and were shown its leading tourist sites.
“We were able to show (the senators) what we have to offer,” Speed said. “Several of them said, ‘We had no idea all this was here.’ They seemed to get a bigger picture of tourism and what it can do for the state.”
Sen. Lydia Chassaniol (R-Winona) is the committee chair and was one of the senators who went on the tour. Prior to her election in 2006, Chassaniol spent eight years on the Mississippi Arts Commission, which allowed her to travel across the state and see some of the tourist attractions she hopes to assist.
“I’ve had a chance to see the best Mississippi has to offer,” she said.
Chassaniol said tourism is a vital part of economic development, pointing to the laundry list of businesses — hotels, restaurants and convenience stores — that benefit from an influx of visitors.
“It’s the cheapest form of economic development. All you have to do is dust off the welcome mat and turn on the light,” Chassaniol said. “And, it encourages entrepreneurial development, which helps the tax base.”
Although they have been critical to the region’s recovery after Hurricane Katrina, the casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, while they are the state’s most prominent tourist attraction, are just one part of the state’s offering, Chassaniol said.
“People will come to Mississippi because of casinos, but there’s more to it than slot machines,” she said, listing Viking Range Corporation’s contribution to Greenwood and the Mississippi Blues Trail that, once completed, could be as popular as Coast casinos.
“I think folks want to see the real Mississippi. Our music is fantastic. Our writing is unparalleled, just like our football tradition,” Chassaniol said. She also said that she would like her committee to investigate the possibility of developing a golf trail similar to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, which has developed into one of that state’s most profitable tourist attractions.
Sen. David Baria, vice chair of the Tourism Committee, echoed Chassaniol’s sentiments about the Mississippi Blues Trail, saying it has potential to draw visitors from across the globe because of the music’s worldwide popularity.
Baria, serving his first term, represents the Mississippi Gulf Coast and said tourism across the state deserves promotion, but it will play a critical role in helping the Coast rebound from Katrina.
“It has to be a priority,” he said.
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .