Tourism leaders say immediate future is "a little scary"

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The crystal balls used by south Mississippi tourism leaders are forecasting a very difficult year for their tourism related businesses.

With the economy down, and unemployment up, people just aren't traveling like they used to. And that makes it tough to lure tourists to south Mississippi. To make matters worse, Air Tran just announced it was leaving Gulfport Biloxi International Airport.

Fewer tourists. Less disposable income. And reduced air service. That combination is not good for the immediate future of coast tourism. "It's a little scary," Treasure Bay Chief Operating Officer Susan Varnes said. It's scary because since the economy went south, a lot more slot machines seem to be empty. It's scary because tables are suddenly quiet, and dealers can't make tips when their games have no action.

Jeff Shreve is a pit manager. "Of course you worry a little bit. But Treasure Bay seems to be doing pretty good," he said.

Yet Varnes admits that because of the economy, and the area's seemingly never ending hurricane repairs, this is a tough time to be in the tourism industry. "I would just like it not to be a topic of conversation anymore. But it is what it is, so it's just buckling down and weathering it out however long it takes," she said.

The Treasure Bay executive expects 2009 to be a year with virtually no growth opportunities. With the airport losing airlines, and the economy still struggling, Varnes' forecast for the casinos, and for tourism is rather bleak. "I don't want to think about doom and gloom," said Varnes. "I just want to remain hopeful that the end is somewhere close."

David DeSean doesn't think taxis will fare much better. They're about to lose a chunk of their business when Air Tran leaves Gulfport Biloxi International Airport. "I think the main thing is to be realistic, and work harder at what you're doing," the veteran cab driver said. His company's cab business is down 40% this year. And if DeSean's calculations for 2009 are right, he predicts 30% of the area's 110 taxis will be off of Highway 90 by March. "There's just no business to support it," he conceded.

A lot of the business taxi drivers and casinos count on comes from the airport. In the last few months, Air Tran, Allegiant, Myrtle Beach Direct, and Skybus have all canceled their south Mississippi service. And American Eagle dropped its daily flight to Chicago. As a result, thousands of potential tourists lost air access to south Mississippi.

Harrison County Tourism Commission Director Richard Forester says that because of the economic trends, his agency will refocus its ad campaigns on more traditional coast travelers. "There are a lot of changes coming for our industry and we are already gearing up to focus more on the drive-in market," he said last week, right after the Air Tran announcement was made.