Pilgrimage attendance down slightly

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 31, 2001

Mary Smith of Dyersburg, Tenn., is seeing her first Spring Pilgrimage from both sides – by helping friend Betty Ratcliff greet visitors to Routhland and by touring several other historic homes.

&uot;The architectural detail is fascinating, and so is the amount of history in these homes,&uot; Smith said, gazing at woodwork around the doors of Auburn. &uot;I’ve enjoyed it.&uot;

But although sunny skies seemed to bring more visitors to Natchez’s historic houses Saturday, fewer tourists visited during the first three weeks of Pilgrimage than at the same time last year. Attendance was down 2 percent from the same period last year, said Manager John Saleeby of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours.

&uot;But that (number) is just a snapshot in time, and it could change radically by the time Pilgrimage is over,&uot;&160;Saleeby said.

Although the number of group tours is up this year, fewer individuals bought tickets to tour 32 of Natchez’s historic houses. Saleeby would not release the exact numbers of tickets sold this year or in 2000.

Walter Tipton, the city’s tourism director, said the number of people visiting the Natchez Visitor Reception Center is down 6,407 from the first three weeks of Pilgrimage last year.

That is despite the fact that 4,249 more people have visited on tour buses than at this time last year. &uot;Overall, our number of visitors is running 15 percent under last year, but we still have a few days (of Pilgrimage) left,&uot;&160;Tipton said.

The event, which started March 7 and ends Saturday, is the city’s biggest annual tourism draw and has a large economic impact on the area.

In March 2000, sales tax receipts totaled $402,678, second only to the $469,705 in receipts in December.

But cold, rainy weather seems to have dampened attendance this year. While group tours are booked up to one year in advance, three times as many tickets are sold to individuals than to group tours.

And more than half of those individuals live within 120 miles of Natchez, Saleeby said.

With the economy threatening recession, people are more apt to take day trips to places like Natchez than splurge on more expensive trips, he said.

&uot;But when they decide they want to come here, the first thing they do is check the Weather Channel to see when they should go,&uot;&160;Saleeby said.

&uot;We can blame (lower visitor numbers) almost 100 percent on the cold and rainy weather,&uot; said Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith. &uot;This is the biggest tourist event of the year, but there’s one thing we can’t control, and that’s the weather.&uot;

As of Saturday, sunny skies had returned to Natchez, and that seemed to bring more visitors out to Natchez’s antebellum houses. Auburn alone had a little more than 300 visitors by 3:30 p.m. Saturday, said Tour Director Kay Nunn. &uot;That is good, about average compared with previous years,&uot; Nunn said. &uot;But it’s mostly individuals, not tour buses.&uot;

Ratcliff, co-owner of Routhland, said the entire Pilgrimage season seemed busier to her. &uot;We’ve also had lots of individuals,&uot; she said.

The antebellum house Melrose, which is operated by the U.S. Park Service and is open all year, has had 4,445 visitors since the start of Pilgrimage, said Park Ranger Intern LaToya Pickens. &uot;Just today, we’ve had close to 300 people,&uot;&160;Pickens said Saturday. &uot;We’ve had four tour buses today. We’re having to run extra tours to accommodate all the people.&uot;

Downtown shops that usually see an increase in business from Spring Pilgrimage have had mixed results during this year’s event. Sales had been a bit off before Saturday at One of a Kind Gifts on Main Street, said owner Mary Lee Wilson. &uot;That may have had to do with the weather,&uot; Wilson said Saturday. &uot;Today’s been our busiest day so far this year. But we are lucky to have a lot of local customers. We don’t rely too much on the pilgrims.&uot;

Darby Short, owner of Darby’s Gifts on Main Street, said that store has had slower sales on weekdays than last year but has had strong weekend sales.

&uot;We’ve had tour groups, carloads of women, couples who are visiting,&uot; Short said. &uot;And these seem to be spend-the-night people, not day trippers.&uot;

Despite a drop in ticket sales for house tours, the number of people stopping at the Visitor Reception Center to see the film &uot;The Natchez Story&uot; is actually up 15 percent from this time last year.

The number of people taking historic bus tours of Natchez is also up 15 percent, Tipton said.

He believes that is because such attractions are being more aggressively marketed this year. &uot;So I believe we’re going to fare O.K. in terms of actual dollars coming into Natchez,&uot;&160;Tipton said.