The star of Southwest Mississippi has always held true to its tourism fundamentals
Beautiful, historic Natchez on the Mississippi River with its many antebellum homes has always had a special tourism niche. Like many tourism destinations, this city has suffered during the recession, but things are looking up.
“Things are going pretty well here,” said Marsha Colson, manager of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours. “We won’t have our full Spring Pilgrimage report until the end of May, but we know there were some positive increases in the number of groups that came.”
In 2009, 71 groups attended the Spring Pilgrimage. That number increased to 86 this year. However, that compares to a past record of 250 groups. The number of groups does not reflect individual sales.
Colson’s organization also represents 30 Natchez bed and breakfast inns, which had 280 total arrivals for the Spring Pilgrimage as compared to only 121 last year.
“Gross income increased this year,” she said. “We’re seeing a significant trend in visitors staying less time or doing less activities or doing those things that are less expensive. Overall, however, we feel there were more people in town this spring.”
As a long-time member of the local hospitality industry, she has observed that Natchez is broadening its appeal and tourism offerings. “Mardi Gras affects hotel lodging, shopping and dining here,” Colson said. “It has been big for years with four or five carnival krewes, parades and parties.”
Other big events attracting crowds include the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration in February and the Natchez Festival of Music, which takes place during the whole month of May.
“The literary celebration is a wonderful event and is in its 20th year,” Colson said. “It brings national and international writers to town. It’s sponsored by Copiah-Lincoln Community College Natchez Branch, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the National Park Service.”
The music festival includes performances in jazz, opera, big band, Broadway show tunes and contemporary genres.
More popular events are: the Fourth of July celebration on the riverfront; Scrapping on the River, a scrap book event; and, the Great River Road Food Festival, which brings in scores of regional cooks. The city tries to have a major event each month.
“In spite of the recession, things are looking up here, and I do not know of any business associated with tourism that has closed,” Colson added. “There have even been some new restaurants opening.”
As manager of the Natchez Convention Center, City Auditorium and the Natchez Grand Hotel, which is adjacent to the convention center, Walter Tipton is in an excellent position to gauge the city’s tourism industry.
“The recession hasn’t affected our conventions that we can see,” he said. “We cater to groups that have to meet annually and we have a good location for them. We have one group that got a federal stimulus grant, some state associations, some education groups and the Mississippi Department of Transportation meeting here to name a few.”
The convention center can seat 1,200 people for dining. That’s usually the maximum number for groups meeting in Natchez with quite a few in the 500- to 600-person range.
“A few groups have put off their conference until next year,” Tipton said, “and some are coming here because of our pricing. Others will come because it’s closer and they have more people attend.”
Natchez does miss visitors and revenue from the river boats of the Natchez Steamboat Company, which are no longer arriving. The boats stopped following Hurricane Katrina, and then made a brief re-emergence before ceasing operations again.
“We miss that. People would get off and do things here,” he said.
On the positive side, construction will soon begin on a $2-million walking trails project along the Natchez bluffs through federal highway enhancement funds. Construction is expected to take nine months.
“These trails will spotlight walking, nature, historic things and the different animals and fish in the Mississippi River,” Tipton said. “It will be several miles long and feature three tiers – the waterfront, mid-level and top of the bluffs and downtown. We love it as a project because it will have something for all age groups.”
He feels the trails will give Natchez many things to market in addition to the health benefits of walking.
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