Tourism in post-Katrina Mississippi: "We are what we are"

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - South Mississippi once boasted that more than 19 million people a year visited area attractions.  That was before Hurricane Katrina dealt a lethal blow to the tourism industry.

That 2005 storm washed away more than a third of the area's hotels.   And it crippled the region's casino industry and its convention business.

Almost four years later, the situation is a lot better.  Hotels are open.  So are casinos, and golf courses.  But there's still a lot more to do if south Mississippi's tourism industry is going to get back to its pre-Katrina level.

Rose Taubel still likes the coast.  "It's beautiful.  We couldn't wait to get back," the Wisconsin woman said while playing a round of golf at the Preserve.  "I love it.  I'm hoping that we can retire here."

That comment is what drives people like Gulf Coast Golf Association Director Kevin Drum.

"Are we doing enough?  I think we're all doing the best we can.  Do we need to do more?  We definitely need to do more," he said.

The tourists who know about south Mississippi rave about what it still offers.

"Oh it's a wonderful area," said Jeff Dorow.  He's also from Wisconsin.  "It's a shame all the damage you guys had down here a few years ago."

Despite the area's best efforts to repair hurricane ravaged tourist attractions, storm scars just won't heal.

"We went to 15 golf shows this year.  And people said, 'Are you guys back?'" Drum said. "And that's the issue that we're dealing with still.  And we shouldn't be dealing with that issue."

Linda Hornsby here's the same thing from hotel guests.

"That, I would say, is the most frustrating thing," the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association Director said.  "We are what we are right now."

So what are we?  "We're not what we were pre-Katrina," Hornsby admitted.  "But on the good side, we're a lot newer than we were then.  A lot of the properties that were older have either gone away or they have certainly become new.  But we're not yet where we're going to be in the next two or three years."

South Mississippi has 5,000 fewer hotel rooms than it did in 2005.  Hotel occupancy is down.

The area lost a casino during Katrina.  Gaming revenues haven't recovered.

One golf course never reopened after the hurricane.  Golf package rounds are down to half of what they were pre-Katrina.

"I think there are some challenges," said Drum.  "There are people who still don't know we're back.  And the golf industry invests a lot of money to change that message.  But we're finding that you're going to have to spend a lot more money to change the fact that we're open for business."

Golf courses budget $200,000 for advertising.  The Harrison County Tourism Commission's allocation is $2 million.  Much of that money is going into a regional advertising blitz.

Richard Forester is the new executive director of that commission.

"We have got to keep the message out there that the Mississippi Gulf Coast is an affordable, particularly affordable destination in current times, that you get a great value when you do come here," he said.

Between top notch golf courses, attractive resorts, and the temptation of lady luck, the tourism community still believes it has what it takes to put this hurricane ravaged tourism community back on the map.

According to Drum, "We just need to take advantage of this opportunity and all work together better.  And I think in some ways, it might get everybody to understand that we have to work much better together to get through this."

The Harrison County Tourism Commission did a four month research project in late 2008 to learn more about the people who are visiting the area.  According to the results, almost 90 percent of the people who came here travelled without children.  They didn't like the Katrina destruction they saw or the dirty beaches.  However, they did enjoy the casinos and the friendly people.  And get this.  The survey reports that the most visited attraction between August and November last year was the collection of tree sculptures along Highway 90.

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