Biloxi the toast of the Mississippi Gulf Coast

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BILOXI, Miss. -- Stephen Richer is relishing the story more than the seafood platter he is picking over at Mary Mahoney's Old French House.

"This is a first," he said, laying down his fork and gesturing with both hands. "They actually loaded a bus full of visitors staying in Biloxi and took them on a day trip to New Orleans.

"That would never have happened five years ago," said Richer, the executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. "People didn't stay here long enough to take a day trip. Now they do."

The Mississippi Gulf Coast has arrived as a destination.

The introduction of casino gambling more than 10 years ago was the catalyst. But the 12 casinos whose neon signs now light up 26 miles of white sand along the Mississippi Sound have sparked or re-energized a wealth of other attractions.

Visitors to the coastal cities of Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis aren't just gamblers, they're snowbirds, retirees and history buffs, families looking for beach vacations and college students on spring break.

They're also passengers on motorcoach tours of the Deep South that combine sightseeing and gaming stops for people who prefer to leave the driving to someone else. More than 20,000 motorcoaches visited the area in 2003, and more are expected this year.

Instead of breezing through the state on the interstates, these visitors are staying in hotels, and they're playing golf, going fishing, shopping, visiting museums and packing the casino theaters to see big-name entertainers.

They're also dining on seafood gumbo at historical restaurants like Mary Mahoney's, and they're celebrating at local festivals, such as Biloxi's Mardi Gras.

Culture and casinos

The region's future looks even brighter. More than $100 million in art and cultural projects are being built. Two new casinos also are in the works, the first resorts to be built since the classy Beau Rivage Resort and Casino's debut in Biloxi in 1999.

New projects follow:

• The Ohr-Okeefe Museum of Art, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Frank Gehry, will feature the offbeat works of a local potter, art by African-Americans and a house built by a former slave. The $20 million museum is set to open in January 2006.

Beauvoir, above, the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, will share its grounds with the $20 million Gulf Coast Botanical Gardens, which is slated for a 2008 opening. • The $20 million Gulf Coast Botanical Gardens project at Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, is ongoing through 2008.

• The historic Saenger Theater in Biloxi recently completed a $1 million facelift.

• A multimillion-dollar NASA space park, with interactive exhibits, is planned for the John C. Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis.

• Expansions are coming to the convention center and the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport.

• The Rock-n-Roll Casino & Hotel, a $140 million resort going up on the Back Bay of Biloxi that includes a 200-room hotel and a museum featuring Delta and Memphis blues, is expected to open in June 2005.

• The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, slated to open in June 2005. The $225 million project on the Biloxi gulf coast includes an 11-story hotel and a Hard Rock Live nightclub that's expected to attract top performers.

Bookings on the rise

"We're a diversified market now with a lot to offer and more to come," said Richer. "People are starting to notice."

The Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB is making sure of that by pumping more money into consumer and agent advertising (about $2.5 million in 2003). The CVB has also been establishing relationships with more U.S. and Canadian wholesalers so travel agents can help fill the area's 19,000 hotel rooms.

Bookings to the Mississippi coast through Gogo Worldwide Vacations, for example, increased in 2003, according to Amy Mills, Gogo's U.S. East marketing manager. Gogo offers three-night, midweek trips with air and hotel accommodations for about $300 or less from cities including Atlanta; Jacksonville, Fla.; Houston; and New York.

"We didn't have a lot of packages before, but now we've got a lot more for travel agents to sell," said Richer.

In addition, motorcoach excursions through the area are on the rise. Collette Vacations is among dozens of companies offering motorcoach tours of the Deep South that generally offer overnight stays in Biloxi and visits to other cities along the coast. Collette's seven-night tours, which start in New Orleans, cost $1,000 to $1,200 per person, double (land only), and include most meals.

"Motorcoach tours to the Mississippi Gulf Coast are an extremely key element in our overall marketing strategy," said Richer. "We work hard to attract operators from national and state bus associations. This year, we are very excited to have ranked ahead of other destinations with gaming, such as Las Vegas; Atlantic City, N.J.; and Reno, Nev., in the National Motorcoach Top Destination Survey."

The Mississippi Gulf Coast continues to draw more than 12 million visits from a national and international market.

Although the top visitor markets continue to be the Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., region; New Orleans; the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., area; and Atlanta, a survey by NFO Plog Research indicates 68% of visitors during fiscal year 2003 came from more than 250 miles away.

And they're apparently having fun -- only three of the 450 visitors surveyed by NFO Plog recently said they didn't like the destination.

"We've got an almost 100% satisfaction rate," said Richer. "Travel agents who send clients here find them returning home very pleasantly surprised by the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

Richer remembers when that wasn't the case.

Eight years ago, when Richer arrived from Atlantic City, the Mississippi coast didn't have an image or many hotel rooms, and no jets were landing at the airport. Most visitors bypassed the area on their way to the Florida Panhandle or New Orleans.

That situation has been changing steadily as newer, classier casinos have replaced the first tacky riverboats and barges that docked in the area after Mississippi legalized gambling over water in 1992.

The number of hotel rooms has doubled, and the region has gained restaurants and nightclubs as well as several championship golf courses.

With the 1999 opening of MGM Mirage's Beau Rivage on the Biloxi waterfront, the region gained a Las Vegas-style resort in size and in amenities. The resort added 1,740 rooms, half a dozen top-flight restaurants, a 1,500-seat theater, an upscale marina and 75,000 square feet of gaming.

No doubt the mammoth casino resorts have changed the appearance and the economy of the once sleepy coast. But gaming revenue also has helped expand existing cultural projects and fund new ones. Tourism officials are quick to point out that the casinos have complemented, not overpowered, the area's attributes.

Back to basics

The area's rich history, pleasant weather, good fishing and pretty beaches continue to be important draws.

For example, Biloxi -- the so-called capital of the gaming coast with nine casinos -- has not forgotten its French colonial past: the first French explorers landed in Biloxi Bay in 1699, designating it the first capital of French colonial Louisiana.

The area also continues to honor many of its Deep South traditions. In the 1800s, Mississippi's coastal towns were the summer playground of wealthy New Orleans cotton brokers and Delta planters seeking an escape from yellow fever epidemics.

Today, many of the stately homes and hotels they built along the gulf are interspersed with souvenir shops and casinos. But their languid beauty remains irresistible, making a drive along coastal Highway 90 an essential part of any visit.

The area's most famous antebellum home is tucked into a peaceful stretch of that highway -- Beauvoir, the retirement home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The 19th century cottage has been preserved and filled with antiques and Davis family memorabilia. The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, which opened there five years ago, offers an absorbing glimpse into Davis' life and times.

The region's maritime past comes alive at the fascinating Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, which also offers sightseeing trips in full-sized replicas of old-time schooners. Visitors can even go out on a shrimp boat with a wise-cracking retired shrimper in rubber boots on the Biloxi Shrimping Tour.

Mississippi's coastal beaches are pretty to look at, though they're murkier than those in neighboring Alabama and Florida. The area's best sand and clearest water is on the barrier islands that separate the Mississippi Sound from the Gulf of Mexico. In the summer months, boats fill up with sunseekers headed to the islands, which are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Together, the natural and cultural attractions of the Mississippi coast and its expanding casino industry seem to be helping the region weather the economic downturn.

Occupancy levels and room rates at the Beau Rivage, for example, are higher than they've ever been, according to Cathy VanDeMark, director of hotel operations at the Beau Rivage.

"We sell out almost every weekend. And if we have a headline act in the theater, neighboring hotels fill up, too," she said.

For information about Collette Vacations' Deep South motorcoach tours, call (800) 340-5158 or visit www.collettevacations.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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