EXPO visitors will be encouraged to see the wonderful things Mississippi has to offer as displayed at the tourism exhibit sponsored by the Mississippi Development Authority Division of Tourism.
Director Craig Ray invites state residents to join those coming from out of state who’re keeping tourism at the top of the list of Mississippi’s leading industries. The most exciting new product to join the state line up in 2008 was the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola.
“The museum’s opening was the highlight of the year; a big event. It’s very well done and designed — a fabulous experience,” he said. “It is a destination in itself and 100,000 to 300,000 people are expected to visit it each year. But, it’s also something people will want to come back to because there will be changing live music.”
The new museum will go hand in hand with the state’s Blues Trail and Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo to create a music cluster. Ray is pleased with the success of the ongoing Blues Trail, which now has close to 70 markers out of a planned 150.
“This trail has been a nice draw and fits in well with the museum,” he said. “We will continue to go forward with it in 2009 and put up more markers.”
Mississippi will host the National Governors Association this year in Biloxi, a big event that will bring in around 700 people and lots of media attention.
“On the Coast, the Cruisin’ the Coast and Smoking the Sound events will be back this year, too,” Ray said. “We’ve done well with our recovery from Hurricane Katrina although the Coast is about 3,000 to 4,000 hotel rooms short.”
That blow from Mother Nature was followed by a lagging economy and gasoline prices that for a time rose to $4 per gallon. “There were no lessons or books on how to prepare for those situations,” the tourism director points out. “We’re feeling the trickle down, like all states, and the economy has been a challenge along with the Katrina recovery.”
However, there is good news from the year just ended, which Ray terms “a very interesting year for tourism nationwide.” Mississippi had fewer visitors but spending was up more than $450 million.
“That’s an encouraging, positive sign. People are staying longer and there are more things to do,” he says. “Of course we’d like to have both numbers go up, but that’s a great message for Mississippi. People traveling here are having great experiences.”
Described as a drive-in market, 90 percent of visitors drive to the Magnolia State. The bulk of those visitors in the southern part of the state come from Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. The northern portion of the state has the most visitors from Atlanta and the states of Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. International visitors mostly come from Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and the Scandinavian countries.
With a reduced marketing budget, the Division of Tourism has pulled back a bit on advertising. The target area now is a 350-mile radius rather than a 750-mile radius as it used to be. Still, the industry is a $6-billion economic boost to the state each year.
On the global front, marketing is shifting to the growing Chinese market. With 35 other U.S. tourism directors, Ray attended a conference and trade show in China where he met with representatives of 31 Chinese provinces.
“That’s a new market for us. It’ll be down the road, but their number of travelers is multiplying rapidly,” he said. “It’s anticipated there will be 100 million Chinese travelers by the year 2020, but I think it could be quicker than that.”
He feels Mississippi is a good fit for the Chinese who traditionally like the outdoors, heritage and culture, golf, music and gaming. “We’ve got the whole package and have stirred up positive interest with them,” he added.
Again looking back at 2008, Ray cites the presidential debate in Oxford and the Viking Golf Classic as major events for the state. “The debate at Ole Miss was an international media event that we feel had some spill out and gave the state some positive stories,” he said. “It’s hard to put a dollar amount on it, but 30 to 40 countries were represented in the media. Both these events happened about the same time so August and September were very busy.”
Ray says the take-home message for those attending the EXPO is to get out and see Mississippi.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.