In many ways, Mississippi is a rich state. We don’t need to be reminded of our innumerable cultural treasures — the writers, musicians, sports legends, inventors and agricultural leaders who hail from our state — but we often need reminding that what we often take for granted, people from around the world want to experience first-hand.
My business partner and I own two businesses in Clarksdale that came to exist purely in order to meet the needs of tourists from all over the world. For decades people from Japan, Australia, Europe – people literally from all over – would travel to our town. We’d run into them on our sidewalks, simply wandering around, soaking up the ambiance. These people recognized the importance of the Delta as the birthplace of Blues music and, given a chance to visit America, they headed to Mississippi.
For many years, the idea of cultural tourism simply didn’t register with Mississippians. As agricultural and manufacturing labor needs were scaled back, many of us began to see that tourism held untold opportunities to create jobs and bolster tax revenue. The problem was that there were few businesses catering to tourists’ needs. Ten years ago, beyond the Delta Blues Museum, Clarksdale had little to offer. Once we recognized the economic potential of tourism, we embraced it and we are now seeing a very real, positive impact in our communities. That impact is now spreading statewide. Additionally, cultural tourism has created valuable and positive publicity for Mississippi that, in conjunction with our low cost of living and available workforce, now aids in attracting manufacturing and other industries.
Every region of Mississippi has something special to offer tourists through its music, its art, its food, its history or its unique culture. That’s why a comprehensive plan to market our state’s goods and our people’s goodness to the world — and why developing an effective strategy to grow businesses on a local level — is feasible and makes economic sense for Mississippi. The Tourism Division of the Mississippi Development Authority is doing good work, but we should all want to see its effectiveness redoubled. Our border states still each claim over two million more visitors per year than does Mississippi.
It’s important for that strategy to include everyone — from state and local agencies to individuals in small towns — investing in tourism-based businesses. We are seeing life return to our small towns in the form of restaurants, music stores, galleries and revitalization of buildings for housing or bed and breakfasts. It may seem incremental at first glance, but collectively – and with the proper attention from state leadership – cultural tourism will be a continued boon for Mississippi.
Today, casinos bring more people to our state than all of our other attractions combined. Gaming is a vital part of our tax base — and the state budget. Yet, we have too much else to offer to rely on casinos alone as an attraction to vacation or do business in Mississippi. It’s essential to support our small businesses as much as our large corporations. Both are essential to Mississippi’s future.
We already bet on tourism in Mississippi, but let’s work harder and smarter to make sure we can bank on it.
Bill Luckett, a Clarksdale businessman and attorney, is founder and director of Progress for Mississippi (www.progressformississippi.com), a leading authority on successful tourism practices, and a Democratic candidate for governor of Mississippi.