Spending time (and money) in Mississippi

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: February 28,2005

An estimated 84,000 tourists visited Mississippi daily last year, spending an average of $111 for every overnight stay, $19 higher than the national average of $92. All total, out-of-state guests spent more than $6 billion in fiscal year 2004 (FY04).

“Casinos are still the number one driving force bringing people into the state, without a doubt,” said Craig Ray, director of the Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Division. “But those same travelers are doing other things than just gambling. They’re playing golf, taking day trips and getting back to nature.”

According to a Mississippi Tourism Economic Impact Report released earlier this month, more Texans played in Mississippi during FY04 than in the previous year, ousting Florida for the number three spot on the list of states from which the most visitors hailed. Louisiana remained top on the list, followed by Alabama. All total, more than 30 million visitors touched the Magnolia State, primarily for weekend getaways.

“The number that jumped out at me is that even though we had a million fewer visitors than the previous year, the visitors that did come to the state spent $400 million more than the year before,” said Ray. “They were staying longer and spending more money.”

Ray called the decrease in visitors “a temporary blip.”
“It’s a trend we’ve seen in other states,” he said. “I’m not worried about it at all. If the number of dollars spent had gone down, I would worry. But this year, casino revenues and rounds of golf are up, so I’m feeling a new trend already.”

The report also revealed that Mississippi’s return on investment based on an advertising effectiveness study was more than $13 per visitor, higher than neighboring states’ while working with the lowest advertising budget.

For the first time, MDA Tourism Division’s Research Unit counted tourism capital investment, which totaled an estimated $440.8 million, including $202 million on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and $79.2 million in Tunica County.

“The estimate helped present a broader overview beyond tourist/visitor expenses, tax revenues and other indicators,” said Ray. “However, this number doesn’t include several large projects going on right now. Another $600 million on the Gulf Coast will be included on the next report, excluding the high-rise condos being built. There’s a lot of tourism economic development going on in the state, and we’re very excited about it.”

The report also highlighted international visitors to Mississippi, which also showed an increase. Canada, England, Germany, Mexico and France, respectively, were the most popular points of origin.

“We’re still struggling with tracking the international market,” admitted Ray. “We know our numbers are up, and that follows the trend since 9/11 of more international travelers visiting the South. We’ll continue to benefit from that. International numbers specifically from Europe are up, the value of the dollar is down, and it’s a very affordable time to come to the U.S. It should be a great international year for Mississippi.”

The report also identified or validated tourism niches, such as nature tourism, behind only casinos and golf as primary draws to the state. MDA will rotate its tourism advertising to focus on those niches, said Ray.

“From day one, I’ve stayed on message: encourage one more day of stay,” said Ray. “For example, a scene from a Delta juke joint is highlighted on the cover of the economic impact report. If we can get visitors to Clarksdale to Ground Zero, we can probably get them to the Blues Museum, Shack Up Inn and other restaurants. When the new opera house opens in Meridian this fall, chances are visitors will go to dinner and do other things in that town. This report will also help us develop tourism products where needed, perhaps in Meridian to enhance the opera house product.”

Other highlights from MDA’s FY04 estimated economic impact for statewide tourism in Mississippi report:

• The 92,400 direct jobs represented 8.3% of the total statewide nonagricultural establishment-based employment, and accounted for a total annual payroll of $1.7 billion. Tourism is the state’s second-largest private sector employer and fifth overall in statewide employment for all sectors.

• The $471 million collected in tourism state tax revenues comprised 8.4% of all state taxes collected. City/county tourism tax revenues collected totaled $152 million. One of every $10 in the state general fund can be traced to tourism income.

• The 29 state-licensed casinos accounted for 29,500 casino jobs, excluding casino hotels. Out-of-state visitors represented 77% of casino patrons. The state-licensed casinos invested $213 million in capital improvements, and tallied $2.84 billion in tourist/visitor gaming and non-gaming revenue.

• Of the 54,027 hotel/motel rooms in Mississippi, the occupancy rate averaged 59%, and the average daily rate was $59.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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