Mississippi to introduce group trips with more shopping time By Tony Bartlett / September 29, 2000 Share 1 -- JACKSON, Miss. -- The Mississippi Division of Tourism Development is preparing new tour itineraries to promote to group operators. It will introduce antiquing and collectibles itineraries and an African-American heritage suggested tour.The tours will be added in January as an addendum to its 2001 group tour planner."Operators are always looking for new places off the beaten track," said Rhonda Williams, the division's senior manager, domestic groups."They tell us that clients want more time for shopping, so we're developing antiquing and collectibles [tours]," she said. There will be two four-night antiquing/collectibles itineraries, one beginning and ending in Memphis, covering the north, and the other starting in Jackson and including the Gulf Coast.The African-American heritage tour, similar to an existing five-night suggested tour, will run from north to south, covering some of the same cities but adding others to include new attractions.The itineraries join a dozen other themed tours in the group planner, varying in length from three to five night and covering such interests as casinos, music, heritage, the Civil War, agriculture, Christmas and two scenic highways -- the Natchez Trace and the Gulf Coast.Gaming has been the driving force in Mississippi's group travel growth."Gaming might be the big draw," said Williams, "but people come on casino tours and see that we have much more to offer. Diversity is one of our strongest assets."She believes the state is well positioned for a growing baby-boomer market looking for more active group vacations."We have biking and canoeing. Golf is exploding; we have more than 150 golf courses. Casinos are packaging golf, and we'll be working on it for group travel in the future," she said.She added that the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament held at West Point, Miss., last year gave the state good exposure.As an example of growth in recreational facilities, Hattiesburg in the south has three new golf courses, and a 42-mile recreational trail, including biking, recently opened on what had been a railroad track."Heritage tours, including Civil War sites, and music tours continue to be popular and provide a tremendous amount of tour bus business," she said. "Pilgrimage tours are also popular."A handful of cities have spring pilgrimage tours, opening historical homes and estates to the public.The tours were started during the 1930s in Natchez, which also has fall pilgrimage tours.Mississippi is experiencing growth in Christmas holiday tours, Williams said.Hancock County, along the Gulf Coast, for example, will have its first holiday tours this year, she said.Several operators, she said, have added crafts and artisans tours this year.Another tour route growing in popularity, Williams said, is the Natchez Trace; 310 miles of the 440-mile scenic highway operated by the National Park Service is in Mississippi.For additional information, contact the division's groups department at (888) 868-7267.For a copy of the group tour planner, agents can fill out a form in the group section on the division's Web site at www.visitmississippi.org.