All things considered, tourism looks good

by Lynn Lofton

Published: July 3,2006

Tourism is big business in Mississippi: a $6.3-billion industry last year with 91,700 direct jobs or 1/12th of the total statewide non-farm establishment-based employment.

That’s why tourism officials are trying to spread the word that the state is still open for tourists, despite Hurricane Katrina’s havoc on the Gulf Coast. The coastal area normally accounts for a third of tourism revenue.

“It’s been a challenge from day one,” says Craig Ray, tourism director for the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). “I have become a geography professor with the media, telling them where we are and what’s open.”

Ray says 75% of tourism attractions in the state are open and there’s still a lot to do and a lot of activity. “My first statement when I’m interviewed by the media is to tell them what was affected,” he said. “We’re not ready to say everything is okay like New Orleans does, but we’re explaining what is open and talking about the state in general.”

To that end, the MDA’s tourism division has moved forward with a proactive advertising campaign touting the whole state. Ray says it’s the first time the division has had four different niche market commercials running within a 750-mile radius of the state. The ad campaign was in the works before the hurricane but was pulled back for a while.

Tourism also rolled out a radio ad featuring Gov. Haley Barbour inviting people, specifically state residents, to help the state by spending their tourism dollars here.

“We still have the same strategy, to focus on the heritage and culture that makes Mississippi so unique,” Ray said. “We’re focusing on the state’s food, culture, music, civil rights history, war, nature tours, hunting and fishing. All of those areas are what make us really famous.”

These were elements the state had before it had golf courses and casinos, and Ray says dining and shopping are included in the cultural mix. “Cultural tourism is very big. It’s going on everywhere and is a popular component,” he added.

Gov. Barbour has chosen heritage and cultural tourism as an initiative to highlight during his year as chairman of the Southern Governors Conference. He will take the reins at a convention this month in New Orleans.

In addition to bringing visitors back to the state, Ray says a lot of convention business that was on the books for the Coast has been retained to keep that money in the state. Much of that business is being redirected to the Tunica area.

“Tunica is exploding. Several new things are coming up that can’t be announced yet. The Gulf Coast will be different but bigger when it comes back,” he said. “Our tourism product continues to grow and the industry is a big part of the state’s economic development.”

He lists three exciting new tourism attractions soon to come: the Riley Performing Arts Center in Meridian, the B.B. King Museum in Indianola and the statewide Blues Trail. Other themed trails are also being planned that will take visitors on self-guided tours of historical and cultural sites around the state.

In its marketing strategy, state tourism is now branching out far beyond the usual 750-mile radius. Last year, the division was present at the World Expo in Japan with a Mississippi Day at the U.S. Pavilion. The marketing strategy is also targeting Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.

“Travelers from these countries enjoy the product we have. They love the blues, gambling and golf,” Ray said. “Nissan is our biggest employer and we are trying to bring other Japanese companies to the state. Canada is a drive-in market and has a lot of golfers. Visitors from the U.K. and Germany can now fly nonstop to Memphis and will soon be able to fly nonstop to Gulfport.”

For the last several years, the tourism division has received level funding from the Legislature. Ray says they haven’t asked for more but would like to have more for the marketing budget so they can spread the word about the state’s growing tourism product.

“We work hard to educate the Legislature on what we do; what our impact is and how it will get better. It’s obvious that tourism will be what rebuilds the Coast,” he said. “For every $1 spent in domestic consumer advertising, there is a $12 return on investment. I see the money other states get and feel we could use more to promote this industry.”

In addition to the direct jobs in tourism, the industry’s activities resulted in another 34,800 indirect and induced jobs for fiscal year 2005. That translates to 126,500 total jobs associated with tourism. The industry ranked fifth in total statewide employment for all sectors. The annual payroll for direct jobs was nearly $1.7 billion and was $739 million for indirect jobs for a total of $2.4 billion.

Visitor expenditures were $6.35 billion last year and the tourism capital investment totaled about $513 million. There was a total of 30 million visitors consisting of business, overnight leisure and day leisure, and 2,862,349 visitors were serviced at welcome centers.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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