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PHIL HARDWICK — Tourism is on a roll in Mississippi

PHIL HARDWICK

Tourism is on a roll.

Although international visitors to the United States is down, domestic tourism continues to climb. Several states posted record tourism numbers. Ohio drew 219 million tourism visits in 2017, up from 212 million the previous year, and saw direct spending rise by $1 billion to $35 billion, according to TourismOhio. Governor Rick Scott said that Florida set a record for tourists with an estimated 116.5 million in 2017. Governor Kaye Ivey just reported that Alabama brought in a record $14.3 billion last year. And the list goes on.

Visitors spent $6.343 billion while visiting Mississippi in Fiscal Year 2017, the second-highest amount on record, according to the latest Visit Mississippi Tourism Economic Impact Report. That same report said that tourism brought in $398.7 million for the state’s General Fund and that it is now the state’s fourth largest employer.

At the local level, communities have devised ways to fund local marketing efforts to increase their tourism efforts. This is often accomplished by an extra tax on lodging facilities and restaurants, places where out-of-towners spend their money. Communities do it differently, but typically the tax, or part of it, goes to fund the local convention or tourism bureau.

Presented here are seven ways that communities can capitalize on their assets and take part in the tourism boom.

1. Books, television and movies have put quite a few cities on the map. For example, Savannah, Georgia and its tourism business was practically transformed after the book-made-movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil hit the mainstream. It was even responsible for a new local tour of the city featuring the places in the story. And what about the exposure given by television shows with the city’s name in the title, to wit Dallas, Providence, CSI Miami. And who can forget Fargo?

2. Capitalizing on famous local businesses is another way to get noticed. People have traveled to so-called destination businesses only to discover the communities around those businesses. Some examples that immediately come to mind include the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, Cabela’s in Sidney, Nebraska and Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. And let us not forget what L.L. Bean’s has done to Freeport, Maine.

3. Notorious past events can also draw visitors to a once economically quiet community. Consider Gibsland, Louisiana, where infamous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed by law officers, and where there is now a museum and festival pulling in visitors to the town. And what about the Johnny Cash event in Starkville, Mississippi that drew thousands into town last year?  Many communities in the South are capitalizing on events in the civil rights era as well. Just consider what the Two Museums in Jackson is doing for the capital city.

4. Festivals and events that may not be so notorious can also be good for a local economy. Many, if not most communities in Mississippi have a local festival. Some examples are the Dancing Rabbit Festival in Macon, the Blessing of the Fleet on the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival. Many communities have developed their recreational facilities and successfully attracted athletic tournaments and activities. New Albany, Tupelo and Clinton are excellent examples of cities that have constructed first-class recreational facilities. Columbus recently sold out every motel room thanks to state soccer and tennis tournaments. Of course, drawing visitors to the area requires other infrastructure and amenities, such as restaurants, motels and related facilities.

5. A community’s location is often a forgotten asset at the local level. Indeed, many cities are not taking advantage of their locations. Also, some cities believe that their area is a trifle more interesting to outsiders than it really is. Personally, I think the “historic downtown” sign is losing its meaning. I often stop at the so-called historic downtowns and can’t find anybody who knows why it is historic. Communities located on high-traffic arteries have a distinct advantage, especially if the artery is an interstate highway. Pelahatchie took advantage of its interstate highway location recently by recruiting a Yogi Bear Jellystone Theme Park project to the area.

6. Technology, especially as it relates to the Internet, can put a town on the map and can be a great recruiting tool for new entrepreneurs. Chattanooga became known as “Gig City” because of its local government-funded high speed Internet project. It is now offering 10 gigabit fiber service.

7. Finally, we come to the best marketing tool of all – word of mouth. One of the best ways to market the community is through ambassadors of goodwill, those people who see it as their mission in life to tell others about the positive aspects of their communities. Word of mouth also applies to visitors who tell others about the community. After all, how many of make vacation decisions because we have heard others tell us about a great place.

So what does your community have that would be of interest to others?  One way to find out is to do something economic and community developers call asset-mapping, which is nothing more than making a list of the assets of the community and determining which could be capitalized upon. If there are few such assets, then consider starting an event or activity that will draw people to your community.

» PHIL HARDWICK is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist. His e-mail is phil@philhardwick.com.

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