Coast has a lot to offer but is missing opportunities

September 2013
By Mary Perez at Sun Herald

Orlando has Disney. San Antonio has the River Walk. South Mississippi lacks one unique offering that can be marketed to bring vacationers to the area, tourism officials say.

What the Mississippi Gulf Coast does have is a combination of assets that nobody else has, John Hairston, co-chairman of the governor's GoCoast 2020 tourism committee, said in a report to tourism leaders last week.

The draw in South Mississippi is a collection of experiences and events across three counties, which he said provide an opportunity to increase tourism revenue and jobs.

NASA and so much more

Among them are NASA, 400 festivals, big-name entertainment, casinos, golf, white sand beaches, sport fishing, sports tournament facilities, seafood restaurants, ecotourism, Civil War history, top tier convention space and Southern hospitality.

The variety of experiences at a single hotel "is our unique offering," he said.

Yet with all these attractions and amenities, the top complaint from tourists who expressed negative feelings about their vacation in a recent survey is "There isn't enough to do."

Tourists are willing to drive to the attractions, Hairston said. "People that visit us don't think it's a long way from Gautier to Gulfport."

John McFarland, chairman of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Tourism Partnership, said visitors don't know what's available in South Mississippi and the attractions are hard to find.

The directional signs to tourist attractions are brown and billboards on Interstate 10 provide drivers dates of upcoming casino entertainment but don't give them a reason to get off the highway that day.

It will be up to the new board members of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau to take the information collected by Tourism Partnership and GoCoast 2020 committee, and set goals for increasing the local tourism economy.

Coming back from Katrina

Hairston said the numbers never rebounded after Hurricane Katrina and South Mississippi finds itself in competition with other destinations as it was after Hurricane Camille in 1969.

Casinos brought tourists back in the 1990s, but he said that uniqueness also is gone since a person living anywhere in the Gulf South now can drive to a casino in 3 1/2 hours.

Since Katrina, the Slippery Sam-type attractions and the mom-and-pop hotels that catered to families haven't returned to the beach. Hairston said the Coast has gained hotel rooms along Interstate 10 and near the airport, but is still "dramatically" short of affordable accommodations on the beach that make longer family stays possible.

Those who do visit South Mississippi are happy with their vacation experience and are likely to return, according to a survey conducted by GodwinGroup for the Tourism Partnership.

Of those who visited within the last year, 59 percent were extremely satisfied and 40 percent somewhat satisfied.

Keeping them satisified

Ninety percent of those surveyed, who had visited South Mississippi in the past 12 months, said they will return. That drops to 65 percent among those who visited more than a year ago.

"Repeat visitors are driven by the variety of things to do and the beauty of the area," said John McKie, executive vice president of GodwinGroup.

Those surveyed said they come for the beaches and casinos, he said, and also visit areas with great shopping and local restaurants, amusement parks and cities with historic districts.

The results of the survey and the GoCoast report provide the challenges and opportunities for tourism in South Mississippi, Hairston said.

Expanding our reach

Only one in four tourists in the survey who lives more than 300 miles away has ever visited the area. The report says a low-cost airline is needed, as is a headquarters hotel at the Coast Convention Center to draw bigger groups.

Consultants say one of the greatest opportunities is sports tourism, Hairston said. Coastwide sharing of resources would allow South Mississippi to host large sports tournaments and he said with miles of highway along the beach, "There's no reason we don't have a marathon out there."

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