Regional Tourism On The Rise

Many people are spending their holiday enjoying local attractions like the beach and the water park. Before Katrina, a large share of our tourism business came from Louisiana, Alabama and north of the coast. Now, even with high gas prices, those people are finding their way back to South Mississippi.

On Wednesday we stopped by several local tourists attractions. All said that business is up from last year's summer tourism season and that much of the credit goes to people who live within driving distance.

Charles Greenwood said he wanted "just to get away for a little while."

When Greenwood and his family decided to get away for the Fourth of July, they left New Orleans headed for Florida. However, their destination changed after deciding Biloxi Beach made for a good time that was closer to home.

"It looks good," said Greenwood. "To be honest with you it looks a whole lot better than what I thought it was going to look."

Since school let out, the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport has averaged about 300 visitors a day. The staff says the largest growing group of tourists is from Louisiana, like the Thombs Family.

Ray Thombs came with his wife and sons, Parker and Austin, from Slidell.

"We make a trip here about once every two or three months. Every time we come back it's like, 'Hey, look what they've done over there.' So it's really exciting."

The crowds flocked to the Gulf Islands Water Park for the Fourth of July. The management says, so far, this season is going better than last. Officials attribute that, in part, to how the water park targets people who can get here with a full tank of gas.

Vice President of Coastal Entertainment Operations Glenn Haggarty said, "Our primary market area is within an hour to hour and a half drive of the water park. So mostly up and down I-10 to get to the park from the New Orleans market up to Mobile, and from Hattiesburg."

Water park officials say they've started new activities to lure in visitors including movie night on Fridays, teen night on Saturdays, and live music on Sunday afternoons.

If more people feel like Charles Greenwood, the coast can expect more regional tourism. He says this Fourth of July vacation was his first trip here since Katrina, but definitely not the last.

"Trust me. I'll be back," said Greenwood. "I'll be back. It looks good out here."

Area beach vendors say they've also seen strides made since Katrina. The owner of Beach Bum says he was one of 14 beach vendors in Harrison County before Katrina. Now that number is down to five.

Dr. Raleigh Carter says he had two stands before the hurricane, but has only one now. He says while the crowds are improving, there is a long way to go before getting back to pre-Katrina numbers.

"It's coming back, but Katrina, we're still kind of feeling the effects of it because a lot of the people who are in FEMA trailers are not renting $70 jet skis," said Carter.

Carter says he's bought a lot of new equipment and is offering discount rates to lure in more customers.