Tourism struggles "a reflection of the times"

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - It's been a rough few years for the tourism industry.  Katrina leveled hotels and casinos, giving tourists nowhere to vacation. And then, just as attractions were getting back on their feet, the economy tanked.  And once again, tourists stayed home.  Consequently, more than a thousand people lost their tourism related jobs.

So what's being done today to protect the jobs that remain?

An advertising blitz is one tool being used.  These days, the Harrison County Tourism Commission is using a million dollars of its money, and a million dollars in grant money to promote everything this area offers.  The ad strategy is simple -- it's time to come back to south Mississippi.

Bill DesJardins works at the Silver Slipper.

"How are you guys all doing today?" the casino executive said to a group of gamblers during a recent walk through his casino.

Both DesJardins and his wife are casino workers.

"I've been doing it 29 years.  My wife's been doing it almost 20.  It's what we do," he said.  "Without the tourism, we're unable to work, and unable to make our bills."

The tourism industry has struggled since Hurricane Katrina battered every south Mississippi attraction.  Just ask Harrison County Tourism Director Richard Forester.

"I mean we are seeing some declining occupancy and that's always troubling.  Some of the revenues in the casinos have been down some.  But that's a reflection of the times," he admitted.

Those tough times are making it tough for John Ferrucci.

"We have 600 employees here," the casino GM said.  "And they say to me what are you doing to protect us.  What are you doing to keep the casino busier?  How can I help?  When do you think it will all be back?  And are we safe?  There's no doubt about it.  That's exactly where it hits.

"It hits the homes and the families of the people who are working here."

Bill DesJardins got lucky.  At a time when jobs were being slashed, he kept his job.  And so did his wife.  However, "We started building a house about two years ago.  And then all this stuff started happening," DesJardins said.  "So, I'm still building the house.  But now we're on a month to month basis as far as getting the money to finish the house."

Debra Hollier can appreciate the adjustments that families in the tourism industry have to make to survive right now.  During a round of layoffs a few months ago, when more than a thousand people got pink slips, her partner was almost on the chopping block.

"We were a little worried," Hollier remembered thinking. "It was the first time with the economic situation going on in the country that we actually sat down and said hey we might have a problem.  We need a plan B."

So what's being done to get tourists back to south Mississippi?

John Ferrucci's answer is rather simple.

"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," Ferrucci said.

Linda Hornsby's solution is much more complex.

"We need something like a minimum two day theme park here, that has not changed I would say in 15-20 years," the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association director said.  "We were crying for one then, we desperately need one now.  Any type of attraction that's going to bring the people in."

Ironically, the area's tourism director heard that same thought at a recent conference in Florida.  According to Forester, "One of the top officials with Carnival Cruise Lines told us, he said, you know you have potential to get a cruise ship in there.  But you've got to get the stuff back that you had before the storm that families appreciated."

The family entertainment concept was echoed through an e-mail from the Mississippi Attractions Association.  Theresa Reese wrote WLOX News to say, "I would like you to know that the Mississippi Attractions Association is an organization that consists of local tourism based businesses.  We are local companies consisting of local people.  We try hard to let the people know there are things to do here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"When it comes to tourism, the smaller tourist attractions seemed to get forgotten.  We have the Gulfport Dragway, Wolf River Canoe, Ship Island Excursions, Biloxi Shrimp Boat Tours, Charter boat rentals, Sailboat classes and excursions, Gulf Island Water Park, Bodine Pottery, numerous museums, and souvenir shops.  If the local businesses would help promote the tourism trade, there would be a spin off to their businesses."

New research indicates that south Mississippi has become strictly an adult destination.   And those visitors spend more than $1,700 per visit.  So, a new ad campaign running in Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida is targeting those sorts of visitors.  The hope is that regional visitors will provide the boost the tourism industry, and its 14,000 employees could use right now.

"Everybody needs to escape from where they are," said Ferrucci.  "That's what we sell for a living.  So tourism grows, the more people come with it, there's a lot of synergy there once you get the ball rolling."

The Harrison County Tourism Commission wanted to know more about its post-Katrina visitors.  So last fall, it conducted a survey.  The typical visitor drove here from Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.  And according to the report, that tourist stayed here an average of four nights.

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