BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - The tourism industry is set to get its own shot in the arm after COVID-19. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration is awarding $2,000,000 of CARES Act Recovery Assistance Grant money to Coastal Mississippi.
“President Biden is committed to helping our nation’s critical travel and tourism sector recover and build back stronger from the coronavirus pandemic,” said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. “This EDA investment will help the tourism industry in the Coastal Mississippi region recover from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, creating a stronger and more resilient state economy.”
“The coronavirus pandemic has devastated travel this past year, and Mississippi’s tourism industry is suffering,” said Sen. Roger Wicker. “This grant will aid the Mississippi Gulf Coast as our state works to recover and lay the groundwork for renewed prosperity.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Coastal Mississippi CEO Milton Segarra. The Coast, now beginning to see some signs of recovery, Segarra said, was one of the most impacted tourist destinations in the country.
“We lost 20% of our revenue, we lost 10-11 points in occupancy, and some other key performance indicators that obviously had an impact,” Segarra said. “This new money will help us to navigate for the following one or two years and be very strategic, investing that money in opportunities that we know will generate return on investment on every single dollar we invest by bringing additional visitors to Coastal Mississippi.”
Notwithstanding the work his team has been doing to help the coastal tourism economy rebound, Segarra said that the work will continue.
“This will be used specifically to keep promoting Coastal Mississippi as a safe and one of the most important destinations in the south. Our marketing committee, our board, in conjunction with our staff, already created some alternatives and initiatives. We’re going to revisit those and, once they are ready, we will announce them,” Segarra said.
The shot in the arm that this money will give Coastal Mississippi goes a long way to combat losses from not just COVID-19 but a historic 2020 hurricane season as well.
“I am happy to report that, not even with the freshwater intrusion of 2019 and last year’s pandemic, we had like two or three hurricanes in the area, we were able to come back really strong,” Segarra said. “Right now, the future looks very promising for Coastal Mississippi and I’m very confident that with this additional investment, and some others that we could get, we’re going to keep driving the destination forward and make sure that people will recognize, in Coastal Mississippi, the best and safest destination in the south.”
COVID-19 impacted the globe in ways that are still being measured. On the Coast, Segarra said, nothing has compared to the downturn caused by the virus, but things are looking up.
“In our industry, the impact of COVID-19 was eleven times bigger than that of 9/11,” Segarra said. “That gives you an idea of the impact. 39% of the tourism jobs in the U.S were gone; here on the Coast, it was 16%. However, with the vaccines, what people are doing, with the messaging that we’ve been promoting every single day that it’s safe to come, that we have a destination health promise in place that is being followed by our partners, that has been the key message that has created trust with our regional visitors to keep coming to Coastal Mississippi. They’ve found a place that they thought and believed was a safe place to come, that we had room to roam, and they like that.”
Segarra said he’s excited about the weeks and months ahead but knows that none of this would’ve been possible without the help from key players.
“We are excited and thankful for this opportunity,” he said. “I want to thank the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Economic Development Administration, the support from Sen. Roger Wicker, our board of directors, and specifically Leonard Bentz and the Southern Mississippi Planning District. This was a collective win for the Coast. We worked together and were able to get this money.”
Officials with the Economic Development Administration said that the grant will be matched with $500,000 in local investment.