The year 1994, Bill Clinton was entering his second of eight years in the White House and Kirk Fordice his third of eight years in Mississippi’s Governor’s Mansion. ER and Seinfeld ruled the day on television while our nation was consumed by the Tonya Harding – Nancy Kerrigan Olympic figure skating scandal and OJ’s white bronco chase.
What does 1994 have to do with Mississippi Tourism? First, It is the year I began my career in the Mississippi Tourism industry here in the small but growing community of Tunica. At the time, Tunica, literally a 1-stop light county, was entering its second year of Mississippi’s experiment with the gaming industry. With no stretch of 4-lane highway and just 20 hotel rooms, this corner of the Mississippi Delta was a far cry from the destination that would develop over the next two decades. Proclaimed as America’s Ethiopia by the Reverend Jessie Jackson and famous only for a 60 Minutes expose’, Tunica has grown to become a major southeast tourism destination.
Once a drain on Mississippi’s economy, today the destination features a much improved infrastructure system to include 8 casino resorts, 5,200 hotel rooms, golf courses, convention facilities and an entertainment industry unrivaled in the southeast. It’s difficult for most to truly understand Tunica’s growth much less the economic opportunities this new tourism destination in the Mississippi Delta has provided our state and its citizens. Of all the statistics that are measured for an areas success, there is one that stands out above all others. It’s the over $2.5 billion in newly found tax revenue the Mississippi General Fund has gained from Tunica and its gaming-tourism industry since inception.
Much like Tunica, the statewide Tourism Industry has also seen dramatic growth in direct employment 64,000 jobs to 86,600 and an increase in the total number of hotel rooms 27,900 rooms to 59,200 rooms. We have almost doubled our capacity to invite visitors to Mississippi to spend the night and experience first hand all that we have to offer. This increase in capacity as you might expect has led to an increase in visitor expenditures from $3.4 billion in 1994 to $6.3 billion in 2016.
Tourism development has not only occurred in Tunica and the more established Mississippi Gulf Coast, it has touched all 82 of Mississippi’s counties. From the Riley Center in Meridian to the Bolgonia Performing Arts Center in Cleveland, from the expansion of the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo to the Children’s Museum in Jackson and from the Lake Terrace Convention Center in Hattiesburg to the Lander’s Center in DeSoto County, Mississippi now has a well rounded tourism experience for all segments of travelers.
The second reason I reference the year 1994, is to compare our state’s ability to market itself to potential visitors verses today. The state agency responsible for marketing Mississippi as a travel destination, Visit Mississippi had a tourism-advertising budget of $5 million in 1994 reaching a high of $9.2 million in 1998. Unfortunately, the Mississippi Legislature, which is responsible for this appropriation, has steadily decreased this amount each year since, with Mississippi now having the lowest advertising budget among our competitive states in the southeast at $3 million.
While the Mississippi tourism industry has grown to a level once unimaginable in 1994, our elected officials have not seen the need to invest in its continued success by providing the necessary funds to compete in the very competitive world of tourism advertising. I urge you to think of advertising much like you would sending an invitation to a dinner party at your home. When hosting a dinner party there are lots of tasks that must be completed to insure its success. You have to clean the home, set the table, plan the meal, purchase the food and cook the meal. The key to a successful party however is the invitation. How successful would your dinner party be if you forgot to invite your guests?
Mississippi has set the table to be successful in the competitive world of attracting tourists to our party. I urge our leadership in Jackson to invest the necessary advertising dollars for the tourism industry to reach its full potential. It will be well worth it as every $1 spent inviting people to Mississippi returns an additional $7 to the Mississippi general fund.