Tourism leaders gambling that 2009 will be brighter

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - In 2008, south Mississippi's tourism industry took a hit. Because of the economy, some condo projects were scrapped, and several condo units were auctioned off at discount prices.

Work on the much anticipated Margaritaville resort was halted. A timetable to restart that project hasn't been announced.

The Isle once again postponed its expansion plans.

Plus, several casinos slashed their staffs to trim their budgets.

Kelly Childress didn't care about any of that.  The Fairhope, Alabama woman said she was gambling at the Palace on the last day of 2008 "because we hope to win some money for next year."

The Palace's general manager isn't betting on a big industry bounce back in 2009.

"We're all victims of the cycle we're in," said Keith Crosby.

That cycle is a bad economy that's keeping people away from slot machines, restaurants and other tourism related attractions.

Once upon a time, the casinos made south Mississippi a market that catered to an estimated 19 million visitors a year. But that was before Katrina, and before the nation's economy went south. Because of the economic struggles, casinos have cut costs, and in some cases slashed jobs, to be in position to ride out 2009.

"The yield out of all this is it will be a better environment for the consumer," Crosby said.

The vacationing consumer is who Richard Forester is focused on.

"You still need to get away. And we have to be right there at the forefront of their thinking when they're making those kinds of decision," Harrison County's tourism director said.

Forester believes that in 2009, it's up to his commission and its tourism partners to somehow lure people, with less money to spend, to this area.

"We have got to be smarter, we've got to be more competitive, we've got to be more aggressive in order to try to keep the awareness of this destination in people's minds when they're thinking about traveling," he said.

Tourism leaders will have a marketing advantage at their disposal in 2009.  The Mississippi Coast Coliseum's convention center expansion will open in the middle of the year.  And one of the first events booked in the new wing is the National Governors Association conference.

One disadvantage is the news about Air Tran.  That airline recently announced that since casinos were no longer subsidizing its service into Gulfport Biloxi International Airport, those flights would be canceled. So, the tourism commission's main focus will be on customers within driving distance of south Mississippi.

Crosby thinks that for now, concentrating on drive-in business is the right approach.

"I think the industry is well positioned to move through this right now," he said.

During 2008, coast casinos had to shut down to ride out Hurricane Gustav. That's one of the reasons why analysts expect revenue receipts to be down about five percent compared to last year.