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More than just a casino town

The Tunica RiverPark is an ambitious undertaking that came years after the first casino door opened. Southeast Tourism Society recently deemed the museum — a riverside adventure teeming with aquariums, cruises and all things celebrating the Mighty Mississippi — the Southeast Travel Attraction of the Year.

The Tunica RiverPark is an ambitious undertaking that came years after the first casino door opened. Southeast Tourism Society recently deemed the museum — a riverside adventure teeming with aquariums, cruises and all things celebrating the Mighty Mississippi — the Southeast Travel Attraction of the Year.

What once was idled farmland is now a tourist attraction for travelers across the globe

 

Sure, legalizing riverboat gambling in Mississippi moved Tunica from one of the poorest counties in the nation — compared in the worst of times to a third-world country — to a leading casino destination in the United States. 

Yet in addition to birthing a burgeoning economy via gaming initially, Tunica has evolved into a true tourist destination. Take the county’s illustrious Tunica RiverPark, an ambitious undertaking that came years after the first casino door opened. Southeast Tourism Society recently deemed the museum — a riverside adventure teeming with aquariums, cruises and all things celebrating the Mighty Mississippi — the Southeast Travel Attraction of the Year. The 2011 “Rand McNally Road Atlas” dubbed it as the top “Best of the Road” trip stop, perhaps in part because of the unique opportunity to chomp into a fried dill pickle at its birthplace — the infamous Hollywood Café — or climb on an electric bull for a wild ride at Tunica Roadhouse Casino and Hotel. 

After years of laying the groundwork to establish commercial air service in Tunica — it’s difficult to justify a commercial airport less than a hour from a major international hub — AirTran Airways launched May 6 regularly scheduled, non-stop jet service — Wi-Fi equipped Boeing 717s, no less — between the Tunica Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. The kickoff promotional rate: AirTran flights from Tunica four days a week — Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday—for $49. With the move, AirTran became the first commercial carrier to provide scheduled, full-size jet access to Tunica since the recent expansion of the airport. 

“It was historic for our growing destination,” said Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). “A remarkable amount of cooperation and hard work from Tunica County officials and the Mississippi Development Authority, along with our private sector partners in the Tunica gaming industry, made it possible. The Atlanta/Tunica route is strategically geared to increase visitor access to Tunica, Northwest Mississippi and the Mississippi Delta.”

Harrah’s Entertainment MidSouth, the largest gaming operator in Tunica with Harrah’s Casino Tunica, Horseshoe Casino & Hotel Tunica, and Tunica Roadhouse Casino, partnered with AirTran, Tunica Airport and Tunica CVB to make the deal for regularly scheduled commercial air service between Tunica and Atlanta. Nearly two decades ago, Harrah’s turned more than 2,000 acres of cotton farmland into a world-class resort with three hotels surrounding the aptly named Links at Cottonwoods, an 18-hole Hale Irwin designed championship golf course. Since then, Harrah’s has added a diverse menu of amenities, from a full-service spa and salon, to children’s adventure center and teen arcade, to an outdoor specialty hunting center. In early June, Harrah’s hosted the 2010 U.S. Open Sporting Clays Championship.   

“It is a huge advantage for us to offer access to Atlanta and beyond to our residential and business travelers in the Mid-South,” said Cliff Nash, executive director of the Tunica County Airport Commission. “Our increased infrastructure and partnership with AirTran is now allowing us to take the next step in increasing access to all that Tunica has to offer.”

What might a formerly desolate Delta town offer on the menu of non-casino activities? For golfers, it’s playing rounds at all three championship golf courses. For tennis players, it’s braving the oppressive summer heat by lobbing on aging joint-friendly clay courts — indoors. For bargain hunters, it’s checking out the newest arrivals and end-of-season markdowns at Casino Factory Shoppes’ and Tunica’s Outlet Mall’s brand-name stores. Or for shoppers indulging their fetish for the unusual, it’s exploring downtown Tunica’s quaint mix of boutiques and galleries. Trivia buffs often leave with a satisfied smirk after leaving the Tunica Museum. 

“There’s more to do in Tunica than ever before,” said Franklin, pointing out that in addition to new attractions, Tunica properties have invested heavily in major upgrades. Harrah’s Casino recently spent $45 million to renovate all 1,300 hotel rooms and the casino floor and add a few new restaurants — Paula Deen buffet, ’37 Restaurant, Sphere Bar, Dunkin’ Donuts, Fuddrucker’s, Quizno’s and Uno Express. Up next: Toby Keith will open his namesake celebrity bar and grill at Harrah’s. Sheraton Casino was recently transformed into Tunica Roadhouse Casino after renovating the casino floor with a Delta blues theme, adding entertainment on the casino floor — pool tables and a mechanical bull, for example — and building a new themed bar and lobby and antique care display.

Since Oct. 2009, Tunica CVB officials have leveraged social media to entice visitors via significant savings. Every day, 13,000 Facebook fans and 2,000 Twitter followers receive the latest promotional codes, information and deals, valued at thousands of dollars in monthly comps. 

There is much more to come in 2011, hinted Franklin. Look for the opening of the gateway to the Blues Visitor Center that will house a blues museum to showcase places to visit across the Mississippi Delta.

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About Lynne W. Jeter

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