The Mississippi Gulf Coast is open for business and the welcome mat is out. The area has put the BP oil spill behind it and continues the Hurricane Katrina recovery. Tourism officials tout the variety of activities available for all age groups.
In Hancock County, the tourism bureau’s Beth Carriere notes that the opening of the rebuilt Beach Boulevard from Bay St. Louis to Waveland is making a big difference in rebuilding efforts. “They’re still working on the boulevard all the way to the Silver Slipper Casino, but the streets in Old Town Bay St. Louis are done, complete with period lighting and landscaping,” she said. “The Depot District is beautiful; what used to be a drainage ditch is now a duck pond. We’re getting there, but keep in mind we were ground zero for the storm.”
She’s especially pleased with new restaurants in the county, including the Cypress Café on Blaize Avenue in an old house that formerly housed a barber shop and Hula’s in the former site of the Diamondhead Yacht Club. The new beachfront harbor in Bay St. Louis and old favorites such as the returning Trapani’s Eatery are helping bring back the charm of Old Town. Also, a 32-suite boutique hotel on Beach Boulevard is being built between the old theater and Trapani’s.
“We’re ripe for development,” she said. “NASA Stennis Space Center’s Infinity will open next year, and Buccaneer State Park will be fully open this summer. Bill Lady has opened Coast Inn and Suites on Highway 90 with a two-acre water park out front that includes a lazy river float and putt putt golf opening in May.”
She also affirms that area seafood is safer than ever. “The Jordan River Steamer is again serving royal reds — shrimp that come from 800 feet deep in the Gulf,” she added. “That’s a good sign that all is clear. Also, Cuz’s Seafood Market and Restaurant on Highway 603, which was closed during the oil spill, has re-opened.”
Richard Forester, executive director of the Harrison County Tourism Commission, thinks we won’t know all the fallout from the oil spill until this summer when comparisons can be made with last year. “Last summer was good for hotel rooms because of the BP workers, but they didn’t go to the attractions and didn’t eat a lot of restaurant meals,” he said. “State tourism is doing a visitors’ gift card with BP money and that has helped. The promotion started in November and goes through the end of March.”
Last summer’s gas voucher program by Harrison County was not as successful as the year before, and Forester says it will not be done again. “We have a message of selling the destination and its value, and we are going to stick with that,” he said. “Visitors can get a tremendous value here with multiple choices.”
The three Coast counties take a regional approach in marketing, targeting such segments as golf, fishing and adults. “Our customers don’t recognize county lines and neither do their dollars,” he said. “We’re trying to develop a permanent cooperative program to offer to our partners for advertising, beginning this spring with coop-ads in some magazines.”
The Gulf Coast Business Council has launched a Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) Committee tasked with researching various competing markets and presenting an acceptable recommendation to the Harrison County Board of Supervisors to convert the existing tourism commission into a public/private entity.
“The DMO will be offered to Hancock and Jackson counties to formally affiliate, forming a regional tourism organization funded by both public and private sector funds, whose mission will be to dramatically grow the tourism industry in all three counties,” said John Hairston, Hancock Bank executive who’s working closely with the committee.
A subcommittee, co-chaired by Forester, is focused on identifying the area’s primary tourism segments to pursue, the value propositions important to each segment, any gap present and how to resolve that gap. “The subcommittee is also focused on identifying proper measurement techniques to assist in quantifying progress as we grow each of those target segments,” Hairston added.
Forester says 66 percent of the convention and visitors bureaus in the United States are private. “That’s because they have an efficient way of doing what needs to be done,” he said. “It will be up to the county supervisors whether or not we do it, and they will decide later this year.”
In the meanwhile, he would like to see more family attractions, and notes the many vacant lots on the beach highway. “We now have the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art open, some new casinos have announced, and we hope to see progress on the new oceanarium in D’Iberville. But still, there’s not much building on the beach because we’re hamstrung by the cost of insurance near the water.”
Cynthia Dobbs Sutton with the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau says the oil spill affected the Jackson County city as it did everyone along the Gulf Coast. “However, we have tried to bring in activities to help show the nation that Ocean Springs and the area are okay and open for business,” she said. “We added a lot of activities to our fall calendar of events which helped the community a lot.”
Those events are continuing and will accelerate in the spring and summer with downtown Ocean Springs as the centerpiece. “The business community, along with the monthly events and festivals and the wide range of outdoor activities, are keeping us open as a vibrant destination,” she added. “There is always something to do here and always fun to be had.”
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