Travel industry 'voluntourism' shines spotlight on Mississippi

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GULFPORT, Miss. -- The Mississippi Gulf Coast is the orphan child of Katrina recovery efforts. To the extent that the storms devastation held the attention of the U.S. news media, it was mostly focused on New Orleans.

Tourism Cares for Tomorrow, the nonprofit travel industry association dedicated to maintaining historical, natural and cultural treasures, decided it was Mississippis turn.

The travel industry is perhaps more aware of the Mississippi Gulf Coast because of the regions tourism renaissance, which dates back to the introduction of casinos in the area in the early 1990s. The casino business, coupled with a 26-mile beach, created an engine for economic development. But of 11 casinos in Harrison County, only three are now operating.

We lost 65,000 buildings, said Stephen Richer, executive director of the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. Eighty-five thousand more were damaged.

But there is hope, Richer said. As the casinos led the economic renaissance, they can lead the revival. What recovery there will be will come from private investment, Richer said, because the government is not going to do it.

TW.com photo by David CogswellLocal authorities said 36,000 people are still housed in trailers, and many more live in tents or whatever makeshift structures they can concoct.

But despite widespread devastation and human suffering on a massive scale, there has been a kind of turnaround in recent months, Richer said. Major investors are moving back to the area and are making commitments to its future.

The three casinos that are now operating in Harrison County are producing about 75% of the revenue of all 11 casinos that were in business a year ago, he said. 

But while there is always investment money for the lucrative casino business, the natural, cultural and historical sites that are the bailiwick of Tourism Cares are low on the list of priorities. Without an organization like Tourism Cares, Richer said, many of those sites might fall through the cracks.

Tourism Cares got its start in 1999 as the Travelers Conservation Foundation, working on restoration of sites that everyone loves to look at but no one seems willing to pay to maintain.

As Tourism Cares Executive Director Bruce Beckham put it: If not the tourism industry, then who?

Tourism Cares had given New Orleans a hand in 2004 when it organized a group to help restore the above-ground mausoleums of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

In the wake of Katrina, it turned its attention to Mississippi, where the destruction would have qualified by itself as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, according to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

The rise of voluntourism

It was Sven Lindblad of Lindblad Expeditions who first pushed the idea of voluntourism to the U.S. Tour Operators Association. Arthur Tauck of Tauck World Discovery, John Stachnik of Mayflower Tours, Dan Sullivan of Collette Vacations and other tour operators got behind the idea.

But once it got started, it developed its own momentum. TW.com photo by David CogswellAnd those who offered voluntourism programs discovered a value they could offer customers that ran against the grain of conventional business logic.

The trend in travel vacations was towards increasing luxury and upscale amenities, but operators were developing a value proposition based on just the opposite. According to Tauck World Discovery, 94% of volunteers surveyed after a cleanup project in Yellowstone National Park said they would do it again if they had the opportunity.

Many people said to me, I really wanted to go down to help in some way but didnt know how. Thank you for providing the vehicle that allowed me to do that, Beckham said. So its not only accomplishing a cleanup, its also providing a kind of self-fulfillment for people.

What started as an outgrowth of the USTOA was joined by the National Tour Association, and Tourism Cares membership gradually spread into other sectors of the travel industry.

Were growing as we reach out to other areas of the industry, said Beckham. Regarding the Mississippi cleanup project, he said, Usually, we would have people with the NTA and USTOA, but now we have people who have never heard of NTA and USTOA who are part of the tourism industry and joined in because they got word through the Mississippi Division of Tourism.

The Gaylord Entertainment people out of Nashville brought some motorcoaches down here [to Mississippi; there have been] hoteliers, corporate travel incentive group organizers. Its no longer restricted to people selling group tours.

Mississippi cleanup

Tourism Cares took 330 travel industry volunteers to Mississippi over a three-night period to help restore nine sites, including the Mississippi Coast Coliseum; Beauvoir, the retirement home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis; TW.com photo by David Cogswellthe Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum; and the Ohr-OKeefe Museum of Art.

Most volunteers slept in creaky bunks, four to a tent, in a tent city established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house the homeless immediately after the hurricane. When FEMA funding ran out, local emergency services took it over and turned it into housing for volunteers.

The Tourism Cares volunteers rose at dawn and after a breakfast of hominy grits spent the rest of each day at manual labor, including picking up debris and laying sod.

The locals were grateful for any help, but some admitted to being skeptical about what could be accomplished by a bunch of tourism professionals.

We didnt know what to expect, said Bill Holmes, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention Center.

These are decision-makers, people who sit behind desks. As my assistant said, theyre not going to get that much done. Theyre delegators.

But in the first two hours the group [put down] 40 pallets of sod. He figured theyd do maybe 40 or 50 in the whole day. In two days they laid 165 pallets of sod. I must have thanked them 50 times. On Saturday afternoon my assistant stood up in front of them and said, I was really, really wrong. Yall are so productive and so good.

Wed love to have them back.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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