The COVID-19 pandemic has halted Mississippi’s tourism industry — but communities across the state are coming up with new ways to attract visitors until travel is possible again. MPB’s Alexandra Watts reports.
“We are tourism strong.”
People from different areas of the state contributed to a video postcard created by the Mississippi Tourism Association for National Tourism Week.
Tourism is the state’s fourth-largest industry, employing over 100,000 people and bringing almost 25 million people and billions of dollars into the state.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily shut down everything from restaurants and casinos to museums.
MTA Tourism Strong
A video for the Mississippi Tourism Association. The tourism community in the State cannot wait to welcome you back when it is safe to do so. In the meantime, we continue to monitor the situation along with our local, state and national partners to ensure we keep our guests and communities safe. #TourismStrong #StudioGodwin
“So when you think about that $6.7 billion that's normally flowing into our state,” Rochelle Hicks, the executive director of the Mississippi Tourism Association said. “That money is not flowing into our state right now because of those jobs and those businesses being closed. That's going to make a huge impact.”
There is not a lot of travel right now, and travel and tourism groups are encouraging people to utilize virtual tourism instead.
Virtual tourism can range from viewing a museum’s collection in your living room to taking a road trip in Mississippi via social media.
“We participated in the virtual road trip that was all across the United States,” Hicks said. “So that was really fun because they got to showcase a lot of their different restaurants and their attractions and things from their area and in their community.”
One of those communities is the Delta town of Clarksdale.
“The most important thing people say they come here for is the music,” Bubba O’Keefe of Visit Clarksdale said of the town where Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters and Rick Ross have called home.
Around this time of year, Clarksdale welcomes people from around the world to the Juke Joint Festival, a weekend-long celebration of music and community.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, the festival, like other events around the world, canceled its in-person event, which brought in crowds of people from around the world who stayed in hotels, shopped at local businesses and ate at restaurants.
“It [the music] has been able to support these different restaurants and businesses, hotels and lodging…that is a benefit to our community,” O’Keefe said. “We realized that we needed to figure out something to keep Visit Clarksdale out in front of the people, so they wouldn’t forget us here.”
O’Keefe and others in the community decided to keep the music playing, by streaming the festival online for the first time.
“It was just incredible to see all the comments and see all the names that we know of the tourists who would have been here,” said Roger Stolle, one of the festival’s organizers and owner of the local Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Arts. “I might not always be able to put a name with a face but I recognize the names or the face. In this case the names as ‘Oh, wow. Okay, France. Oh, yeah, the UK! Oh, great Italy!’”
During the live stream, people could give real tips to musicians, too.
“It means just as much to the musicians and artists to be supported from afar,” Stolle said. “Whether it's a comment on their Facebook live stream [or] 10 bucks in their virtual tip jar, things of that nature absolutely are helping. I had one musician who emailed me after he played on Saturday, and he said, ‘You know, it just I needed this…just spiritually, I needed this’”
In places like Tupelo, the annual Elvis Presley festival will now be online, too.
“The musicians, the artists and museums and organizations that have fulfilled your life in the past and will be there in the future, if we support them, you know, once we get through these hard times,” Stolle said.
You can’t walk in places like the Hambone Gallery, but its owner and local musician Stan Street said it’s still a way to engage people.
Street was touring in Europe right before the COVID-19 pandemic. His plans for summer travel have been canceled, but he is encouraging people to come back to Clarksdale in the future.
“Actually I'm kind of glad to be quarantined here because it's just it's quiet and I think we’ll open up a little sooner than the hotspots, big cities and that,” Street said. “So, anyway, when we're open for business, please come and support us.”
Mississippi areas are looking ahead on how to keep visitors safe during the future.
Milton Segarra is the CEO of Coastal Mississippi, an area of the state known for its beaches, casino and travel destinations.
Last summer, all of Mississippi’s beaches were closed due to toxic algae. Revenue for the area’s hotel industry has been down 71 percent during this pandemic, as casinos statewide have closed.
But Segarra believes people are going to be looking for different kinds of traveling post-COVID.
“Those travelers are saying, ‘I want to go to places… now that I know that they took good care, with this pandemic… I want to go to places that are not crowded. I want to go to places that can connect with the nature. I want to go to places that I will not feel the pressure of being so close to so many people,’” Segarra said. “We believe that coastal Mississippi is exactly that.”
Segarra said he wants to be ahead of the curve and is in touch with local businesses currently opened on best safety measures.
“We're drafting certain parameters that we will be recommending to the industry that they should follow in order to provide an additional level of trust and comfort and safety to their to their visitors.”
It remains to be seen what travel will look like post-COVID in Mississippi and around the world. But when Mississippi and travelers are ready and able to safely experiences the sites and sounds, areas around the state are ready.