By LYNN LOFTON
It may be surprising to learn that 11 percent of jobs in Mississippi are in the hospitality industry. With 122,850 jobs in tourism, that sector is now the fourth largest private employer in the state. Other impressive numbers include 24.7 million visitors who came to the state and spent $6.7 billion in fiscal year 2019. Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division, marketed as Visit Mississippi, is currently in the middle of fiscal 2020 which ends June 30.
Tourism Director Craig Ray is pleased with the way things are going. “We’ve had record numbers,” he said, “and we have a busy time coming up with spring festivals, pilgrimages, baseball games and other events. Although we’ve had some ups and downs due to the economy, right now we’re in a good place.”
Ray is hard pressed to name the state’s biggest tourism draw. “It’s not just one. We have a unique portfolio of gaming, resorts, festivals, history, culinary, and heritage tours,” he said. “There is a common theme of culinary and music that we see more and more people following.”
Speaking of the rise in heritage and culture travel, he cites the success of the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. “In the two years it’s been open, it has exceeded expectations. It’s bringing in visitors on a stand alone basis.”
Sports marketing is growing as cities build sportsplexes and recruit tournaments involving all ages. “It’s booming and is a growth trend around the country,” Ray said. “These tournaments bring in a lot of families. Of course having sports books in the casinos brings in a lot of people too.”
Looking ahead, Ray says the Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport, expected to open April 30, anticipates 400,000 visitors yearly. It will contain more than 80,000 square feet of exhibits connected by landscaped walkways with plants representing all the physiographic regions of the state. There will be indoor and outdoor interactive habitats with more than 200 species of animals from land, water and air.
“Guest and animal interactions are taken to the next level through SeaTrek, a helmet diving experience,” says Mississippi Aquarium CEO David Kimmel. “Guests will fully immerse into the main aquatic wonders habitat where they will get up close and personal with fish, sharks, rays and much more. There are only a handful of other aquariums in the nation that offer this experience.”
Throughout the state the Blues Trail continues to be successful with visitors, along with county fairs and Cruisin’ the Coast which had record numbers last October.
“We’re a drive in/drive through state so we focus our marketing on the neighboring states that circle us,” Ray said. “With digital marketing it’s easier and cheaper to extend that reach. We market our strengths. We have a product people enjoy and we look for continued growth; we’re excited about the opportunities.”
However, all visitors don’t come from neighboring states. “Our international market has grown with 165,000 visitors last year from 12 countries,” Ray said. “When I started in this job, we could track 5 to 10,000. Typically, our international visitors have been to the U.S. four or five times before they come to the South. They come here and then they come back.”
The United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and Brazil are among the countries represented by visitors. For more than 26 years state tourism has partnered with Memphis to market the two areas in Europe.
Since 2005 Visit Mississippi has billed itself as the Birthplace of Music with different slogans. The current slogan is Don’t Miss Out. “From year to year the slogans change, but our numbers speak for themselves. If people choose to come and hear our story, they’ll better understand who we are and they’ll return,” Ray said.
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