And that’s a good thing.
A former special assistant to the president and deputy director of advance for event coordination with frequent flier miles on Air Force One during the Bush years, Ray, as director of the tourism division of the Mississippi Development Authority, is now one of Mississippi’s top salesmen.
With a staff of 85 and a budget that usually falls between $8.5 and $10 million annually, the department’s main thrust is to share the Magnolia State’s deeply rooted tradition of hospitality and its ever-expanding line-up of places to see, events and activities to attend and occasions to enjoy.
It’s competitiveness big business in a big time way where reputations are often only as good as that last experience. And the numbers are staggering. Tourism attracts 20 million visitors, generates in excess of $6 billion annually, providing more than 115,000 leisure time jobs and contributing nearly $400 million to the state’s general fund.
That Ray, a Madison Ridgeland Academy and Ole Miss graduate, Fondren resident and admitted political junkie who was appointed to his post by Gov. Haley Barbour in 2004, knows his stuff is obvious. That he is willing to share that knowledge quickly is a delight.
You can, he says, compare Mississippi tourism to neighboring states like Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee because there are similarities, but he likes the state portfolio even more, suggesting its diversified range is unparalleled in the South.
Though forever linked to its natural tag as the hospitality state and still home to the (July 31-Aug. 1, Hattiesburg) Miss Hospitality (four members of his staff are former winners) Pageant and the (July 15-18, Vicksburg) Miss Mississippi (four have become Miss America) Scholarship Pageant, Mississippi’s new “Birthplace of America’s Music” slogan shouts proudly its heritage of blues, country, rock ‘n roll and gospel music and artists.
Nowhere is that more evident than through the creation of the Mississippi Blues Trail, its historical markers and seemingly endless agenda of gigs, jams, clubs, cafes and festivals across the state; the new and remarkable B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola that has already attracted guests from 35 countries and the soon to be developed Country Music Trail that will feature heavy doses of Meridian, Jimmy Rodgers and others.
And of course Elvis remains king, his legacy now managed by the same company that owns the “American Idol” television show and his $180 Tupelo birthplace now shares space on the 15-acre park with a museum and chapel. Fan Appreciation Day is Aug. 8 in Tupelo while the third-annual Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist will be named Aug. 13 in Memphis.
Though significant and now properly recognized, Ray beams that music is just one component of the diversified Mississippi story.
Outdoor activities – hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching – combine to create a formidable, participatory segment that accounts for revenues topping $1.6 billion, and while the state doesn’t promote a single trail like Alabama, its golf courses – most built in conjunction with its 32 casinos – have been recognized as world class and highly competitive.
Not surprisingly, the casino business remains big, but trends like those in Las Vegas reflect both a changing economy and a maturing industry. Only 40 cents of each dollar is now the result of actual gaming. The balance comes from the growing popularity of spas, golf, food and entertainment, and casinos now work more closely with communities to encourage longer stays and driving distance day trips.
That’s because visions of the Old South linger.
Plans to observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War are now being developed. Insights about life in a unique period of history surface through clusters of antebellum homes in Natchez and Vicksburg or sprinkled throughout the state. The scenic Natchez Trace Parkway stretches across the state, sharing its unspoiled beauty and thoughts of the past while African-American and agri-business heritages are celebrated with special, all encompassing itineraries of their own.
Mention the PGA Viking Classic, football at Ole Miss, basketball at Mississippi State, baseball at Southern Miss and the Sonic Boom of the South Band at Jackson State and you open yet another avenue of entertainment, one as wide as the Mighty Mississippi itself, as metaphorically tasty as the culinary delights found in almost every town.
It’s quite a story, one spun well at each of the 12 Welcome Centers near state borders, antebellum-style facilities maintained by the state Department of Transportation and staffed by the tourism team.
Of the 20 million visitors, Ray says 90 percent drive to or through, using their personal vehicles. Half of that number, roughly nine million people, stop at the centers for advice, refreshments and, as a popular courtesy uniquely Mississippi’s, reservations or area promotions.
It’s big business, remember, delivered with a smile, one Craig Ray wears often as he enjoys what may be one of the state’s most fulfilling jobs.
Contact MBJ editor and publisher Ed Darling at email@example.com or by calling (601) 364-1021.