Natchez Trace brings dollars to area businesses
NATCHEZ — When most people think of the Natchez Trace Parkway, they think of the greenery that surrounds it.
But while the Trace certainly has an abundance of trees, flora and fauna, there’s another kind of green coming from the historic scenic roadway that has nothing to do with the preservation of natural resources — money.
The 444-mile long Trace — which turns 75 this year — is the seventh most visited park in the U.S. National Park system, bringing in 5.6 million recreational visitors a year, Interim Natchez Trace Superintendent Dale Wilkerson said.
It was once a dirt trail used by traders and travelers who couldn’t afford or didn’t want to pay for a boat ticket upriver, but today the Trace is a paved roadway with well-marked historic sites whose visitors bring a whopping $93 million into the Mississippi economy, he said.
“These are 5.6 million people who come to the parkway just to recreate,” Wilkerson said. “Those numbers and the tourism support 1,200 jobs from travel, hotel lodging, food service — such as restaurants and gas service things like that,” Wilkerson said.
“We really do serve as an economic driver here in the state.”
For local markets, it’s difficult to track specific numbers, but Natchez Convention Center General Manager Walter Tipton said it’s a fact that the parkway and U.S. 61 — which is also a designated scenic national byway — serve as a natural magnet for leisure traffic to the area.
“It is a lot of individual travel, and it is a fragmented market, but I perceive huge benefits from the Natchez Trace,” Tipton said.
“The motorcycle clubs and the antique car clubs love the Natchez Trace as a venue, so I know a lot of those groups use the Trace as an attraction when they decide to have their meets and their rallies.”
The draw of the Trace to leisure travelers is that it provides access to historic sites such as Mount Locust and a nature-based setting, but also provides a modern roadway and easy access to modern conveniences, Natchez Pilgrimage Tours Chief Executive Officer Marsha Colson said.
“When you look at the Trace, it is a very narrow strip, but it was so well-designed and landscaped and managed that you get the sense of being on an old road,” she said.
“You feel like you are far from civilization, but all you have to do is turn off and drive a quarter mile and you are at someone’s house or a gas station.”
And for that reason, it’s not just drivers of motorized vehicles who love the trace.
Stan Smith, owner of Stan’s Rock and Roll bicycle shop, said the Trace is a major draw for both local and tourist bicycle traffic in the Natchez area.
“It is a wonderful bike ride — there are very few towns that have this place to ride on,” Smith said. “If you go to Baton Rouge or even places like Jackson where the Trace is, it is crowded but here it is smooth and open.”
Bicyclists who come to ride the Trace often want to ride more than just the parkway, Smith said.
“I have met people on the Trace who have come to Natchez and stayed three or four days to ride the Trace, and they ask about other routes they can ride,” he said.
And a good ride can help a bicyclist work up an appetite, which converts the turn of a pedal into the turn of a dollar in a local restaurant or grocery.
“They have got to eat somewhere,” Smith said.
While local tourism industry officials do work to market the Trace as part of the area’s overall draw, the Trace has in turn served to further the area’s tourism efforts.
“There have been people who have come to Natchez on the Trace because they were driving the Trace, because they were focusing on the Trace, and they came to Natchez and found out we had historic homes to tour, that we had a Pilgrimage, they did those things too, so it works both ways,” Colson said. “The Trace is good advertising.”
The future for tying the Trace in for new tourism efforts is bright as well, Tipton said.
“The future is great for promoting things that tie us to Nashville in Natchez from a music standpoint,” he said. “There are several people looking to make a triangle that would take Nashville, Memphis and Natchez, and the Trace would be a part of that triangle tying music venues to Natchez.”
And that’s how — at least on the Natchez Trace — money may just grow on trees.