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Tourism faces more challenges in 2010

 

Mary Beth Wilkerson

Mary Beth Wilkerson

Excuse those in the state’s tourism industry if they do not shed a tear for 2009 as it comes to an end. The recession, job losses and the corresponding drop in discretionary spending made this year quite forgettable. There was a 7 percent decrease in visitor expenditures and direct tourism employment in FY2009 compared to prior year.

Unfortunately, 2010 may not be much better. The economy is showing signs of recovery, but no one is predicting a full bounce-back during the new year.
“I see those in the state’s tourism industry trying to be optimistic,” said Mary Beth Wilkerson, who assumes the reins of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division Jan. 1. “But, it’s a challenging environment, and it’s going to be a challenging year.”

Wilkerson, an Okolona native who has served as deputy director of the Tourism Division since 2002, said 2010 would not be business as usual.
“The key to moving forward in our Mississippi tourism endeavors in 2010 is to build upon and create new alliances and partnerships with our industry stakeholders,” she said. “We now, more than in any time in the recent past, need to look to creative and innovative ways to collectively position Mississippi as a tourism destination while still embracing the individual niches each area has to offer.”

With further state budget cuts a certainty, Wilkerson said the industry is going have to do more with less.

“While it is vital to explore and engage in strategic traditional media marketing and advertising avenues, the age of social networking and expanded Internet marketing allow for us to share Mississippi’s message globally at minimal additional costs. We will be further exploring those opportunities,” she said.

While the outlook is guarded at best, there are some positives expected in 2010. Construction is slated to begin on the $14-million Hospitality and Resort Management Center on the Jefferson Davis campus of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and is targeted to be operational for the 2010-2011 school year. The center’s focus will be on workforce development and support culinary arts, tourism marketing and hotel/hospitality management.

The Mississippi Blues Trail, the state’s effort to package blues to visitors, will hit a milestone in January when it erects its 100th marker. Another 70 markers are planned, many earmarked for erection in 2010. And, a similar Country Music Trail will be on the table in 2010, and Wilkerson said plans are for a total of 25-30 markers to go up in 2010 and 2011.

The state will also welcome its second PGA Tour event in 2010. The inaugural Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, a stop on the PGA Tour’s Champions Tour, will be played April 26-May 2 at Fallen Oak Golf Course in Harrison County. Tour notables Tom Watson, Fuzzy Zoeller and Hal Sutton are just a few who are expected to compete in the three-day event that will air on the Golf Channel.

Another plus for the Coast was announced this month. AirTran Airways has made public plans to resume scheduled service from Gulfport/Biloxi to the carrier’s hub in Atlanta and add new service from Gulfport/Biloxi to Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2010.

Wilkerson said she and her team would also focus on making the Tourism Division leaner and more effective in 2010. She said they would look internally, identifying areas where they can be more efficient and effective, which is especially important considering further state budget cuts in 2010.
Still, Wilkerson sees more pluses than minuses.

“Mississippi has tremendous potential to further enhance and develop its tourism product,” Wilkerson said. “This can be achieved in all areas of the state. Through continued promotion and strategic marketing partnerships with our industry stakeholders, tourism visitation and visitor spending can be increased. Mississippi can look to garner continued economic returns and create additional jobs for Mississippians through its tourism industry.

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