JACKSON, Miss. -- Trends in motorcoach travel in Mississippi mirror changes taking place across the board in group travel, according to Rhonda Williams, associate manager of senior domestic group trade, Mississippi Division of Tourism.

"We are seeing an evolution in the industry toward special-interest and niche marketing," Williams said.

"The group travel industry is offering more than just the traditional motorcoach tours that the future seniors, who are today's baby boomers, don't want," she said.

Those special interests include soft adventure and cultural tours with an increased emphasis on flexibility, Williams said.

"Soft adventure is something we are promoting, and our purpose is to provide different types of activities so that tour operators can develop interesting programs," she said.

Williams cited a canoe trip down the Mississippi River, which she called "the ultimate Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn experience for small groups."

Another is a biking tour along the Natchez Trace, a federal parkway and scenic byway that runs from Nashville to Natchez.

"This is a beautiful, traditional fall foliage and spring motorcoach tour, but biking the route is becoming more and more popular," she said, noting that a combination bus and bike tour could offer the best of both worlds.

Other active itineraries are abundant in the Gulf Coast area, including boating and fishing, Williams said.

"Water activities are available year-round, except for a few months in winter," she said, adding that the area was recently named one of the top 20 fishing destinations in the world by Salt Water Sportsman magazine.

Also popular are shrimping trips on double-decker boats in Biloxi that draw participants of all ages, Williams said.

"The fisherman pulls in his catch, identifies the shrimp and throws them back while talking about the history of the area," she said, adding that the 45-minute tours have become a popular addition to Gulf Coast sightseeing packages.

Increasingly popular is the golf market, Williams said, with some 155 public and private golf courses in the state.

"You could do a designer golf itinerary from the northern part of Mississippi to the Gulf Coast, playing golf and sightseeing along the way," she said.

Noting that January and August are the only two months when the weather doesn't cooperate for golfers, Williams said her office has designed a new golf guide with suggested itineraries.

New this year in all the tourism information is a breakdown of the state into five regions -- the Hills, the Delta, the Coast, the Pines and the Capital/River -- aimed at offering more detailed and user-friendly information about each area, she said.

In all, Williams said, the state drew 32 million visitors in 1999, with most choosing Mississippi as a getaway weekend.

Between 1996 to 2000, the state has seen a 5.3% increase in the market share for golf, "which is a positive sign that golf is an emerging niche market for us," Williams said.

Mississippi also boasts the third-largest gaming industry in the U.S., she said.

Travel professionals can call a dedicated number, (888) 868 7267, or visit the Web at www.visitmississippi.org.

Those with specific questions or who need assistance designing a program can call Williams' office at (601) 359-3297.

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