Tourism Leaders Optimistic About Summer Season

If you expected tourist season would be a wash out this year, think again. While tourism leaders admit this will be an unusual summer, they are optimistic about the prospect for visitors.

Like so much of the coast, the tourism industry has made significant progress since the storm.

Eight months ago, right after Katrina, many folks may have written off any prospect of a successful summer season this year. But with Memorial Day weekend just days away, those who rely on summer visitors are quite excited about the approaching summer of '06.

The familiar sound of the casino floor can be heard upstairs at the Isle of Capri.  While a different, but also familiar sound echoes on the first floor.  Construction workers are busy preparing an expansion project.

The pre-summer expansion means adding 400 plus slot machines, a variety of new restaurants and retail, and a covered walkway from the parking garage.

"I don't think right after the storm we were expecting a big summer this year. no one really knew what was going to happen. But the spirit here on the coast has really come through, shone through. A desire to build back," said Rich Westfall, director of community development for the Isle of Capri.

With casino interests leading the way, hotel rooms are also returning. Harrison County has about 6500 rooms right now, which should jump to around 9000 by Labor Day.

And while Beach Closed signs still dot the shore, there are several stretches where sun worshipers can still plop down in the sand.

Sightseers and the curious will no doubt be a part of the approaching summer season, checking out the Katrina destruction firsthand. There's also a new segment of visitors called voluntourists.

"We all came down with Habitat for Humanity, working on two homes," said Eric Schwartz.

Volunteers from Lehigh University are working in Meridian, but took time out for a day trip to Biloxi, enjoying the weather, while documenting destruction.

"A group of us wanted to come down to the coast to get a firsthand view of what happened on the coast," said Daniel Sommer.

"It's just crazy, I don't know. You see it on TV and you see pictures, but it's just," Erin Schwartz said, unable to finish her description of destruction.

It may be tough to describe the devastation, but, like the tourism leaders, the students also sense a spirit of optimism.

"It's rebuilding. There's life back here. Which is the most amazing thing," said Lehigh student Gemma Kite.

Tourism director Steve Richer told WLOX News he's "optimistic" about the summer. He says for the past ten years, his department has been running ads telling everyone where the Mississippi Gulf Coast is. Now, thanks to Katrina, most everyone knows.

He also says much of the press about Biloxi and the coast has been positive, highlighting our ongoing rebuilding and recovery.