Alabama tourism booming while Mississippi struggles

Published: Feb. 5, 2014 at 4:24 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 5, 2014 at 10:53 AM CST
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BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Nearly four years after the massive BP oil spill, tourism is booming in one Gulf Coast state, and it's not Mississippi. New numbers out this week show visitors to Alabama's beaches in 2013 broke records. Hotel and condo revenue is up, along with retail sales.

It's the second year in a row of record growth for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. But what about Mississippi's numbers?

Here's the analysis of the area's 12,800 hotel rooms from the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association.

Hotel Occupancy
2008 63.5%
2009 61.5%
2010 67.8%
2011 60.5%
2012 62.5%
2013 57.3%

In 2013, South Mississippi hotels had their worst occupancy totals in at least five years. And the revenue generated from the rooms sold last year was down by nearly eight percentage points.

Here's another indicator related to coastal tourism struggles. The airport passenger count is down - at the lowest level since 1999.

So what's the problem? Why is Alabama reporting record tourism, and the coast-- even with the added draw of casinos-- struggling to get people here?

Just a few days ago, we told you South Mississippi's casinos had their worst year since 1999.

John Hairston, the chair of the MS Gaming Commission and a member of the Gulf Coast Business Council said gaming is no longer a novelty in the southeast.

"We must have amenities, attractions, and events coupled with our natural resources to create a compelling value proposition," Hairston wrote. "The good news is we have much to offer, and we can absolutely turn the trend around. To fail to do is to accept a decaying economy, which we all agree is an unacceptable outcome."

We asked John McFarland about all of this. He's the chair of the tourism partnership board, created before the tri-county tourism commission was formed. He said it's important to remember Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Florida Gulf Coast and New Orleans have long been nationally- and internationally-known destination brands.

"They've been spending millions of dollars a year to establish that brand, while our Coast advertising has been limited in dollars and primarily focused on 'drive markets' from New Orleans, Mobile and Hattiesburg," McFarland wrote. "That produces a lot of bodies on the beach, but they don't stay overnight, so they don't pay a hotel tax and therefore don't add to the available marketing funds."

McFarland said Mississippi received two BP grants of $15 and $16 million (the first $15 went to MDA), while Louisiana, Florida and Alabama each received two grants of $30 million. He said the grants were based on the existing size of the tourism industry.

"They spent theirs primarily on big new events to boost numbers on key weekends. It was a smart move on their parts, but not something that would have worked as well for us."

McFarland also pointed out that last three Labor Day weekends were lost to hurricane watches/warnings and two Memorial Day weekends were also lost to weather.

"Despite all that, tourism employment is up here on the Mississippi Coast each of the last three years," McFarland wrote. "Tourism revenues (hotel tax in Hancock and Harrison/food & beverage tax in Ocean Springs) were up last year and flat this year despite the lost holiday weekends and casino revenues being down. But while the 18 upstate casinos have seen a drastic drop in revenues (now below the 12 Coast casinos), our casino revenues have dropped only about one percent a year. So while the industry isn't healthy here, considering that travel nationally is just beginning to pick up after the recession, it could be a lot worse."

He said there has been some focus recently to draw visitors from markets like Jackson and Vicksburg - places that are too far away for a day visit, and would bring in more overnight visitors.

One hotel manger WLOX News spoke with believes a convention center hotel could help turn around our struggling tourism industry.

Meanwhile, the search continues for an executive director for the Gulf Coast Convention Visitors Bureau.

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