Independence Day is just days away, and in a summer when gas prices were predicted to be low but are climbing, the cost to fill the tank would seem to be a determining factor in where people take a road trip.
A new survey by WalletHub ranks Mississippi's gas prices third lowest in the country, yet calls it the least ideal state for a road trip this summer.
Perception is one of the biggest challenges for Coast tourism, say local tourism leaders. They dispute this report, which also puts 75 degrees as the ideal temperature for a summer destination. They give South Mississippi higher marks and say the reasons to vacation on the Coast are increasing as new attractions, restaurants, hotels and shops open this summer.
Numbers are up
"We're having an extremely good summer in Hancock County," said Myrna Green, who works in tourism development. In the first four days of handing out Magnolia Money at the visitors center in Bay St. Louis, she said people from 21 states and four countries came in and signed up to save money at area businesses.
"We are getting new people off the interstate," she said. Although bus tours are down this year, she said, the number of weddings, family reunions and outings is up about 200 percent and 2,500 welcome bags were handed out in 30 days.
Places to stay
Auto club AAA expects 41 million people to travel 50 miles or more during the upcoming three-day holiday weekend, a 2 percent increase over 2013. AAA said 35 million of those will be making a road trip.
Memorial Day stays on the Coast were up 8 percent over last year, said Linda Hornsby, executive director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association, and she said, "July 4 is looking real good." It's still a one- to two-night minimum holiday weekend booking compared with longer stays before Hurricane Katrina and the national recession, she said, but the numbers are moving in a positive direction.
Things to do
"Our greatest value proposition is the diversity of experiences we offer -- beaches, ecotourism, entertainment, conventions, golf, food, nightlife, gaming, attractions, sports," said John Hairston, who pushed for years to get a regional tourism marketing
agency for the Coast. Bringing together all these things and making it easy to market the combined experience is the only way to change South Mississippi from a summer-weekend destination into a four-season, seven-day destination, he said.
Helping people find these experiences is something the Mississippi Gulf Coast Attractions Association is doing, with maps available at the welcome center and its website, said Rhonda Roberts, its president.
Again, perception is an issue, with WalletHub giving Mississippi a low ranking for number of attractions and scenic drives.
"What more could you ask for?" Robert said. South Mississippi is one of the few places in the country where long stretches of beach and water are visible from a highway. And across U.S. 90/Beach Boulevard are beautiful homes, she said.
Mark LaSalle, director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, announced last week construction is about to begin for a new Audubon Center in Moss Point. It will be one of the premier ecotourism offerings in South Mississippi, he said, but not the only one. He gives the area a C grade for ecotourism. "Mainly because we don't have enough capacity," he said, but also because nature tourism in the area is too competitive. He'd like to see easy-to-book packages that combine a stay in a local bed and breakfast, a boat tour and visits to the Grand Bay Estuary, Gulf Islands National Seashore and Sandhill Crane Refuge.
It's a matter of giving people what they want, said Bill Holmes, director of the Coast Coliseum and Convention Center. He gives South Mississippi an A+ for adults but a C+ for families.
"I say we're like Vegas with a splash -- and the splash is the water," he said. The casinos provide nightclubs and renowned chefs, and more entertainment venues and restaurants are opening. The Coast has relaxing bike trails, museums and nature walks, but he said what's missing are the thrills of amusement parks and large water parks.
When visitors get what they want, they return, he said. "We just had 1,500 youth come in and use the beach and they had a grand time," he said. Local organizers brought beach vendors into the discussion early and rented kayaks and skim boards to the Christian youth group, put up a volleyball net and cleaned the beach.
Holmes said the attention impressed the group so much, they booked return visits for the next two years.
"The people coming here are having a great experience," he said. "Those people that haven't found us yet -- we need to let them know what we have."