On Site: Southern Travel Leaders See Gradual Recovery

photo by Susan J. Young

Travel Agent strolled the trade floor at the Travel South conference this week in Birmingham, AL, and talked with top tourism officials about the outlook for summer and fall travel to the nation’s southern states. 

While hard data for early 2010 is not yet available for most states, anecdotally at least, state tourism chiefs believe 2010 is turning out to be a better year than 2009. Some report strong bookings for summer and into fall. Others see a steady but bit slower recovery culminating sometime in 2011. 

Here are gleanings from several state tourism commissioners who requested time to chat with us at Travel South. 


Mary Beth Wilkerson, Director of Tourism, Mississippi Development Authority, State of Mississippi talks with Shirley Howie-Garrett, a buyer from Sunshine Travel, Lancaster, SC

photo by Susan J . Young

Hoteliers have told Joe David Rice, tourism director, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, that advance bookings are steadily improving. He believes “it’s going to be a good year” and probably better than 2009 with several major new attractions on tap. 

Among those is the unusual Ozark Medieval Fortress, a full-scale European castle being constructed— with visitor participation, if guests desire – with the techniques and tools of the 12th Century; it opens in May in Lead Hill, AR


Joe David Rice, Tourism Director, Arkansas' Director of Parks & Tourism greets a show goer at Travel South

Similarly, Betty Carver, commissioner, West Virginia Division of Tourism, said “we’ve held our own [during the recessionary period] but we’re keeping our eye on the gas pump.” More than 90 percent of West Virginia’s visitation comes from the drive market, so gas prices impact consumer travel decisions to that state. One big plus is the state’s affordability, Carver said.

Also stressing the value message?  “When the economy is down, Kentucky does very well,” said Mike Cooper, commissioner, Kentucky Department of Travel. “We’re viewed as value.” 

Cooper told us that major distilleries in his state— a huge tourism draw— have reported double digit increases in visitation over the past year as Americans have sought affordable close-to-home activities. Kentucky tourism should benefit this year from several major equestrian and horseracing events including the Breeders Cup returning to Churchill Downs in the fall.  

Mary Beth Wilkerson, director of tourism, Mississippi’s Development Authority, sees recovery as a gradual process. She says 2009 visitation was down 7 percent across the board from 2008, and, as yet, “we don’t see the needle moving” that much. But she’s positive in her outlook and believes recovery is likely to occur in 2011. The state is progressing with many new tourism projects including a newly announced Country Music Trail.

In Tennessee, Susan Whitaker, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, reported that some attractions and events – including the fanciful and fun Mule Day (actually a four-day event) in Columbia, TN earlier this month— have been “slammed” with visitors, a huge increase this year. “People have such cabin fever,” Whitaker stressed. She mentioned her state’s affordability and musical heritage as draws for visitors. 

Based on recent tourism research, Alisa Bailey, president and CEO, Virginia Tourism Corporation , talked about her state’s new approach to tourism marketing, which is centered around attracting more Generation X travelers. She says research shows Gen Xers spend 50 percent more than baby boomers while on vacation in Virginia.

In terms of the importance of attracting younger clients, Virginia’s research shows that in the case of today’s boomers:  “If we don’t get you here by the time you’re 43, we’re not going to get you,” Bailey said. Boomers only tend to come to the state in their golden years if they’ve been there in their younger years. Multi-generational family groups are still a big target market for Virginia. “Optimistic” is how Bailey described her perspective for the summer and fall travel seasons. 


Mike Cooper, Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism talks with a buyer on the trade floor at Travel South

Visitation across the South will be driven this year by such new attractions and features as a new international airport in the Panama City, FL, area, a new mile-long boardwalk in Myrtle Beach, SC, a new Scottsboro Boys Museum in Scottsboro, AL, new hotel developments in Lake Charles, LA, the new $195 million NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, NC, and the development of group tours for the first time at the Hattiesburg Zoo in Missouri

Stay tuned for a more robust story here next week for a state-by-state look at what’s new and different across the South with gleanings from many other state and local tourism officials including those from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina . Louisiana, for example, reports visitation is already up 5 percent thus far this year in certain destinations.


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