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Making a Pilgrimage

Thousands flocking to Natchez to tour historic Southern homes

The 2011 Natchez Spring Pilgrimage is in full tilt, and organizers are expecting this year to be the event’s best in a half-decade or so.

The events of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the recession and the BP oil spill have hurt the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage’s numbers over the last decade. However, organizers are expecting a bounce-back year in 2011.

The events of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the recession and the BP oil spill have hurt the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage’s numbers over the last decade. However, organizers are expecting a bounce-back year in 2011.

With the exception some of the war years, the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage, which features tours of the city’s many historic homes, has been held annually since 1932. Established as a grassroots effort by the local garden club, the Pilgrimage now draws thousands of tourists from all over the nation and world.

Longwood, just one of the museum-homes offered on the Pilgrimage, has recorded visitors from all over the U.S. and from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, China, Argentina, Chile, Sweden, Switzerland and The Philippines, to name a few.

Like so many events, the Pilgrimage has taken hits from 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the economy. Back in the 1990s, the event was drawing approximately 250 tour buses. Challenges in the last decade saw bus tours drop to approximately 80.

“Hurricane Katrina taught us just how connected we are to New Orleans,” said Marsha Colston, who heads up Natchez Pilgrimage Tours. “For many, we are a side-stop to New Orleans.”

However, Colston said the city is expecting this to be a bounce-back year. The 2011 Natchez Spring Pilgrimage runs through April 16, so she did not have definitive numbers yet. But Colston estimated that the city should see approximately 120 bus tours this spring, and she expects perhaps 50,000-plus visitors this year.

The Spring Pilgrimage was established in 1932 by the local garden club, which originally wanted only to showcase the city’s picturesque lawns and gardens. But when visitors showed interest in seeing the homes, too, the Pilgrimage was expanded to include the area’s many historic structures.

The Spring Pilgrimage was established in 1932 by the local garden club, which originally wanted only to showcase the city’s picturesque lawns and gardens. But when visitors showed interest in seeing the homes, too, the Pilgrimage was expanded to include the area’s many historic structures.

Officials have never distilled the Pilgrimage’s economic impact numbers from the general impact of tourism (meetings, conventions, etc.) during the festival’s weeks. Colston could only say they “would be significant.”

One effort to boost attendance has been upgrading the Pilgrimage’s brochure, including other non-tour offerings. However, the real push has been through online and social media promotion.

“I never could understand why Europeans would want to come to Natchez to see our homes when they have such grand places in Europe, so I asked one time,” Colston said. “The man said if he wanted to see historic homes in Europe, he would have to drive hundreds of miles. What he liked about the Pilgrimage is that he could see all the homes in one place.”

Organizers are already looking ahead to the 2011 Natchez Fall Pilgrimage, which will be held Sept. 30 through Oct. 14.

The Pilgrimages offer numerous tour packages offering dozens of homes at different prices, dates and times. For more information on the spring and fall events, visit www.natchezpilgrimage.com, or call (601) 446-6631 or toll-free 1-800-647-6742.

A tour guide wearing period dress meets a bus load of guests at Rosalie during the 2011 Natchez Spring Pilgrimage.

A tour guide wearing period dress meets a bus load of guests at Rosalie during the 2011 Natchez Spring Pilgrimage.

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