Mississippi Gulf Coast Bounces Back From Katrina

Several Mississippi Gulf Coast tourism officials met with Travel Agent recently to discuss on-going efforts to not only bring back the tourists the destination had before Hurricane Katrina struck the coast, but to make the site the most desirable it has ever been.

Nicole Learson, director of marketing for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Al Hopkins, president of the Harrison County Tourism Commission, sat down with the magazine and were excited to report that the tourism infrastructure is pretty much back to normal following Katrina, and efforts are being made to keep the momentum going.

The current room inventory on the MississippiGulfCoast is about 10,000 out of the 17,000 rooms that were available pre-Katrina, Hopkins says. As the coast rebuilds, that number is expected to grow to 30,000, Learson says.

With added rooms, meeting space, air transportation and new attractions, the MississippiGulfCoast is expecting to become a top-tier destination.

"Agents really need to learn and know this area very well to sell it effectively," says Bert Bueg, who, along with his wife, operates Bert and Joyce Bueg Independent Travel Agents in Seminole, FL, which sends about 25 percent of its clientele to the Mississippi Gulf Coast annually.

"The coast offers something for every type of client," Bueg says, noting that seniors looking to spend short three-day vacations along the coast are an increasing market. "So you need to know what attractions it has, what opportunities there are, in order to know what to recommend to what client."

Some background on this evolving destination follows.

Airlift

The Gulfport-BiloxiInternationalAirport is operating at 120 percent of the seating capacity that was available before Katrina. In December, it added two daily nonstop flights to Dallas/Ft. Worth on American Airlines, and Air Tran has resumed daily Florida flights.

The $56 million expansion to double the airport began in 2004 and will be completed during the first quarter of this year. When it is finished, the gateways will increase from four to eight, Hopkins says.

Casinos

Ten casinos are currently open with more proposed, including a Foxwoods Resort Casino and Resort. (At press time, no further details were available on that property's construction timetable.)

Some of the other developments include The Island View Casino Resort, which is investing $200 million in a casino, 562 hotel rooms, 1,035 slots, 14 table games and a 350-seat buffet. Phase one was completed on September 18, and phase two is expected to open in the spring.

Also, Hard Rock Casino is rebuilding to up its capacity to 318 rooms, including 24 suites, a spa and fitness center, a 1,200-capacity entertainment center, five restaurants, 1,500 slot machines, 50 table games and poker rooms. The opening date is slated for July 7.

Rendering of the 646-suite Bacaran Bay Casino & Resort

The Bacaran Bay Casino Resort will be opening a 646-unit, all-suite hotel and casino.

So, what's contributing to the influx of new casinos to the area?

Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed a dozen floating casinos along the GulfCoast, so Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour signed a bill in 2005 that allowed casinos to be rebuilt up to 800 feet inland.

"There's no question we are going to keep getting additional properties because of the new rule," Hopkins says. "The eight hundred-feet rule really helped alleviate a lot of the problems we had. It really encouraged major players to get involved with developing on the coast."

The Silver Slipper Casino opened Nov. 9

The Sliver Slipper, which opened in November 2006, was the first casino in Mississippi to be built on land. In HancockCounty, the property has 1,000 slot machines and 26 table games, plus a 10-table poker room.

More Than Just Gaming

"There is so much more [on the MississippiGulfCoast] than just the casinos—there's excellent fishing, famous vineyards with wine tasting and more. The only way to really learn about it is to get there and experience it for yourself," says Bueg.

Here are some highlights of new attractions. A temporary location for the Walter Anderson Museum opened in December in the Historic Glenn Swetman House. Learson says there are plans in the works to incorporate photos and archives from Katrina in the museum. Also, work toward the new $32 million Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi continues to move forward.

Infinity at NASAStennisSpaceCenter, a $35 million attraction, is scheduled to open in early 2009 with a 3-D theater and expansive galleries with exhibits about oceans and space. A themed restaurant, a gift shop and exhibitions with real earth and space artifacts round out the plans.

Also, the MGCCVB is looking to further promote activities geared toward volunteering in the continuing effort to recover from Katrina. To date, the destination has received about 450,000 visitors for the sole purpose of volunteering, and there is still much work to be done, Learson says, noting that the MGCCVB is looking to work with Travelocity to promote volunteer-driven vacations to the coast.

Through MGCCVB's main wholesalers Mayflower Tours, tourists can take a full tour of sites impacted by Katrina. The tour is divided into stations with markers that tell tourists exactly how high the water level reached at that particular spot. For more information, call Mayflower Tours at 630-435-8500.

Top-Tier Expectations

In three-to-five years, the MississippiGulfCoast expects to become a tier-one destination. Learson says for that to happen, there must be a minimum of 30,000 rooms in the region.

There has been more than $600 million invested into current and future condominium projects on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, including the Legacy Tower, which is 200 units, Sea Breeze, which is 185 units, the $95 million The Ocean Club, which will open up 375 units, and the Shores of Paradise, with 476 town homes and condominium units. Learson says most of these properties can be rented and are commissionable for agents.

"We were there before Katrina and we were there after Katrina," Bueg says. "We liked what we saw there, the people we met, the hotels we stayed at, and we can tell you that the MississippiGulfCoast is a real sleeper right now. It will become a huge sell for agents."

Where Are Visitors Coming From?

Hopkins says about one-third of the destination's visitors come by car, one-third fly in from across the U.S. and one-third come from international markets. Hopkins also says that the destination is getting a lot more people from Canada and Europe. Because of the media exposure the MississippiGulfCoast received from Katrina, Hopkins says that more people learned about the region and the South in general.

FastFactsMississippi GulfCoast Convention & Visitors Bureau Phone: 228-896-6699, ext. 210 Web site: www.gulfcoast.com

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