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MBJ FOCUS: State’s tourism tumbles amid pandemic

MILTON SEGARRA

By LISA MONTI

The year started out on an upbeat note for the Coast’s tourism industry. The visitor numbers for January and February were the best in four years, and March was on track to continue the trend. Nearly $750 million worth of projects including upscale hotels and the Mississippi Aquarium were on the verge of opening.

Coastal Mississippi, the agency that promotes the three southernmost counties, marked the first anniversary of its new Secret Coast branding campaign and touted 2020 as a pivotal year for development and economic growth. Leaders looked for “an extremely prosperous year ahead.”

Then the rapid spread of the coronavirus sped into a global pandemic. “It’s amazing,” Milton Segarra, CEO of Coastal Mississippi, said of the spiral. “The world stopped and the industry changed.”

Segarra and his staff began working from home in mid-March. “We’ve had a few meetings in the (Biloxi) office but mainly all daily operations are from home, and it’s working well,” he said. But the momentum building early in the new year has naturally slowed.

The Coast, with its casinos, beaches and various activities and attractions, has hosted visitors for generations. Now the casinos are shut down, restaurants have closed or limited hours and offerings, events have been cancelled or postponed. “It’s putting a big pause in our plans that we had,” he said.

When Segarra came to the Coast, he brought extensive experience dealing with crises. While he was head of Puerto Rico’s tourism agency, there were two major hurricanes, the Zika virus health emergency and the financial meltdown of the Puerto Rican government. Last summer in Mississippi, he guided coastal tourism response to beach closures due to toxic algae. “It was back to back to back,” he said of the string of calamities.

Now, during a worldwide health crisis, Segarra said Coastal Mississippi is conveying two messages to future visitors. “One, they have to stay healthy and safe,” he said. “Two, we are encouraging them not to cancel their plans but to postpone their vacations. When they are ready to travel, we are going to be ready and waiting for them.”

When tourists do finally return to the Coast, he said, they will find “the same level of experience and commitment that each one of our stakeholders provides normally when we have visitors in town.”

In the meantime, Segarra said, “We are doing as much as possible to support our local stakeholders including restaurants and make them part of our local messaging strategy so locals and others can support them right now. That’s the most important thing.”

Coastal Mississippi’s website has tips on how to stay well while supporting local restaurants and other businesses along with a link to coronavirus preparedness resources. There’s also a list of temporary closings and the status of events that’s constantly updated. Segarra said the website has the most up-to-date information on the Coast.

“We will stay in touch through the social media platforms we manage and when we see that the consumer is ready to start considering messages about traveling again, we will be there and bring our A game to make sure we resume and continue the recovery,” he said.

Segarra, who is active in national and international tourism associations, said, “What we’re hoping, and that’s the right word, is that we will see most likely after this summer the economy starting to come back slowly but surely.” Next year at this time, he believes the economy will be in recovery mode, “not to the level in March 2020 but in recovery.”

Segarra said the Coast’s tourism industry represents one-third of the state’s tourism jobs, visitor expenditures and taxes. The Coast’s future is based on how quickly its tourism industry recovers.

“We have to make sure we work together with local leadership and legislative leaders,” he said. “This is the time to really come together, craft a plan and make it happen. It’s so important for the coast and our industry on the coast to rebound as fast and strong as possible.”

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About Lisa Monti