By JACK WEATHERLY
Natchez’ 300th birthday last year was big for the antebellum tourist destination on the Mississippi.
Next year, the city of 15,000 is counting on a fair number of travelers making their way to New Orleans for its tricentennial celebration.
“We have three historic communities in the Deep South that are two years apart on their 300th anniversary,” said Walter Tipton, director of the Natchez Convention Center.
Natchitoches, La. – the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase and site of the filming of “Steel Magnolias” – started the trend in 2014, followed by Natchez and New Orleans.
“Intruding” in that two-year symmetry – in a good way – is the state of Mississippi, which is celebrating its 200th this year.
“Going into this,” Tipton said, “we kind of looked at it as a three-year window.”
Natchez’ tourism coffers reflect the generous turns of the wheel of fortune.
Last fiscal year saw a record $797,928 pour into the city’s 1.5 percent restaurant tourism tax collections, and 2017 is on course to match that, according to convention center records.
To help capitalize on that trend, open-air buses are making the rounds.
City Sightseeing Natchez – also known as Hop-On Hop-Off buses – started 45-minute rounds early this year at a dozen stops on the circuit.
“These were introduced in New Orleans about three years ago,” Tipton said. “It ties our attractions together. The downtown merchants and others along the route love it.”
Sharon Brown, owner of the Natchez Coffee Company, said of the tour: “I laughed, learned history and met great people from all over.”
Tipton explained that “people can get off and shop. It ‘s a hop-on, hop-off concept. The ticket is good all-day long, and in most cases they buy a two-day pass.” Tickets are $20 for one day and $22 for two days.
Tipton joked that “we love having things beta-tested in New Orleans and then bring them up here and implement them.”
Warren Reuther and his wife, Nancy Reuther, own the open-top bus franchise in both cities, which is also found in eight other U.S. cities and 125 cities worldwide.
The Reuthers also own Natchez’ Monmouth Historic Inn, where they stay when they are not in New Orleans.
“We felt [the buses] would enhance the opportunity to see and hear about the great Natchez story by providing . . . an overall, snapshot tour of this great city . . . in a fun and convenient way,” the Reuthers said in a news release.
Of course, places for visitors to stay are key for a tourism.
The city lost between 100 and 150 rooms of its 1,000-room inventory when the historical Eola Hotel closed in December 2014, Tipton said.
The Eola did not fail because of lack of patronage, Tipton said. The man who owned it was primarily an operator of nursing homes in Louisiana, where he suffered a $6 million judgment against him.
And so Rob Lubin bought the hotel, and may bring it back as such, or convert it to condominiums or a combination of the two, Tipton said of Lubin, who is a principal in the Magnolia Bluffs Casino at Natchez.
“All of that is up in the air,” Tipton said.
The city had another casino, the Isle of Capri, but it couldn’t compete with Magnolia Bluffs, which opened at Natchez Under-the-Hill, he said, adding that the victor bought the loser’s 140-room hotel and refurbished it.
A $2 room tax implemented in 2008 has steadily gone up, indicating healthy tourism, Tipton said.
Collections of the room tax reached $307,940 in fiscal 2011, records show, and except for 2013, when an anomaly skewed the figures, they have risen each year, reaching $403,004 in fiscal 2016.
To address the loss of rooms, the Reuthers are converting a former Regions bank building into the Hotel Natchez, which will add more than 65 rooms.
“It’s a beautiful building. It already has handicapped access and two elevators,” Tipton said.