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Closer-to-home summer travel could boost Magnolia State tourism hot spots

Memorial Day kicks off busy summer vacation season

Memorial Day weekend traditionally begins the summer travel season. That’s a trend tourism and travel officials expect to continue but with a nod to rapidly increasing fuel and food costs.

Mike Wright, spokesman for the American Automobile Association (AAA), said there was approximately a 1% increase in Memorial Day travel this year with the holiday weekend being a fairly good predictor of the summer.

“It’s a cumulative effect of the rising price of gasoline and the economy,” he said. “I think travelers will look for places closer to home and less expensive places to stay and eat. Families may forego one trip to the amusement park or stay one day less to cut costs.”

He believes that trend will hold true for the summer with a flat season or one that is slightly below last year. “It won’t be a record breaker year but still a good season,” he added. “We find that usually 85% to 90% of the travel in this country is done by motor vehicle, and people are still going to travel.”

The AAA monitors fuel prices and travel plans across the country. Wright says the average cost of a gallon of gasoline statewide in Mississippi is $3.67. That compares with an average cost of $3.80 nationwide.

State tourist hot spots are counting on the trend to travel closer to home this summer to keep the hospitality industry thriving. In Tupelo where a new “Go Tupelo” campaign kicked off May 15, National Tourism Day, Linda Johnson hopes many visitors will decide to explore the Northwest Mississippi area.

“Realizing that gas and food prices are up, we wanted to put together itineraries for the surrounding areas,” she said. “There’s so much to do in our area, and we’re excited about the new campaign. We have affordable family vacations even with the cost of gas.”

Two of the special itineraries, Safari Not So Far Away and Get Around Downtown, begin June 1 and go through August. Tupelo now has 1,800 rooms available with an addition and two new inns soon to bring that total to around 2,200 rooms. Some hotels are giving discounts this summer.

“We invite everyone to come and stay over night to really get away,” Johnson, who’s executive director of the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau, said. “To feel like they’ve been somewhere, visitors should stay, swim in the pools, use the itineraries, go shopping and go to the movies here.”

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau also expects a good summer season.

“We have a lot of media calling to find out what’s open and what’s going on here,” said Media Relations Manager Janice Jones. “Our destination is a good, one-tank trip. Gas prices will have an effect, causing people to plan their trips as one or two-tank trips opposed to cross country. The Coast has a strong drive market and is convenient for many travelers.”

Memorial Day is usually a sellout for area hotels and attractions, a positive indicator for the summer. In 2006, the holiday weekend was slow due to a reduced room inventory, Jones said, but visitation figures for the year were healthy. This year, the room inventory has increased from 9,000 to 11,000 with two more inns scheduled to open soon.

Henry Robinson, general manager of the Great Southern Golf Club in Gulfport, had a good holiday weekend and expects that to continue through the summer. There is no club house as of yet, but that’s not hampering play.

“We had a lot of players calling early, and that’s a good indication of what to expect in the coming weeks,” he said. “This year will definitely be better because we have a 50% improved golf course and had only two temporary greens last year.”

In Tunica, the Memorial Day weekend hotel bookings bode well for the coming months, according to Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“With more than 3,700 completely renovated hotel rooms and new attractions such as the Paula Deen Buffet at Harrah’s Casino, we are looking forward to the upcoming peak months of the year,” he said. “Tunica is going to remain strong during these times because a number of people can’t afford to get on a plane and go to Las Vegas. Tunica is a better value closer to home, so they will spend three days here instead.”

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

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