BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - On Sunday night, 51 of the country's most beautiful women were on the Las Vegas Strip for the 2009 Miss USA pageant. If you like watching pageants - and a lot of people still do - then you watched Miss North Carolina win the crown.
Once upon a time, south Mississippi hosted Miss USA. And after that, we were fortunate to be the home of Miss Teen USA. Families from all over the country visited the area for those pageants. And viewers from all over the world watched the telecast "live" from the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.
It took a lot of work from a lot of dedicated volunteers to lure the pageants, and put on a first class show. The benefits were obvious. South Mississippi and its tourism industry got all sorts of exposure.
I mention that because on Sunday and Monday, I'm going to take a rather detailed look at where the tourists have gone. In the mid 1990s, the Harrison County Tourism Commission did a report that indicated 19 million people a year were vacationing along the shores of the Mississippi Sound. New hotels started going up, top notch golf courses were created, and museums began expanding their programs.
And then, in an instant, the area's tourism industry got swamped. Hurricane Katrina shut down the casinos. It demolished many of the hotels. Beachfront restaurants got swallowed up. And museums closed.
In time, most of those properties started to rebuild. And then, in another instant, the economy went belly up, and tourists started to cancel their vacations.
Richard Forester is the new executive director of the Harrison County Tourism Commission.
"We are seeing some declining occupancy and that's always troubling," he said. "Some of the revenues in the casinos have been down some. But that's a reflection of the times."
How bad is it? March gaming revenues just came out. They were down more than 15 percentage points when compared to March, 2008.
John Ferrucci is the general manager of the Silver Slipper in Hancock County.
"We have 600 employees here. And they say to me what are you doing to protect us. What are you doing to keep the casino busier?" he said. "We need to make sure that we're doing the best that we can. So people, if they have discretionary dollars, they choose to spend them here on the coast with us."
There was a time when south Mississippi seemed to be the darling of the TV world. Network cameras constantly broadcast boxing matches from here. The Golf Channel aired the Nike Tour's stop at the Oaks. Basketball tournaments came here. And so did the girls and their pageants. The coverage was huge, because it gave this tourism community a real shot in the arm.
I miss those days. There was a buzz on the coast back then. We need to reignite that spark. It may be just what south Mississippi needs to get people back here, so we can once again be crowned a true destination resort.
Editor's Note: Watch for Brad Kessie's special report "Where have all the tourists gone?" this Sunday and Monday (4/26-27) on WLOX News at 10pm.
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