Tourism better than expected so far

Published 12:27 am Sunday, April 6, 2008

NATCHEZ — Spring Pilgrimage in Natchez over the last few years has looked about like the national economy does lately — not good.

But those closely connected to the tourism industry say the bad times won’t last forever; things are looking up.

Director of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours Jim Coy said the Pilgrimage recession began in 2000 and that there was plenty of reason for the decline.

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The dot-com crash, Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina all were significant factors that grossly impacted tourism.

Pilgrimage saw it’s worst year in 2006, when the gross sale was only $1.3 million, compared to the $3 million it made in its most successful years in the mid-90s.

However, in 2007, upon the 75th anniversary of Pilgrimage, the event saw gross sales the likes of which hadn’t been seen in years, bringing in $1.5 million.

This year, Coy expects to make around the same amount in gross sales, despite Spring Pilgrimage being down 5 percent.

“We’re hoping to break even compared to last year,” he said.

Last year, individual tours for the spring grossed $77,000 and individual tours grossed $265,000.

Coy said he believes the numbers this year will deviate only slightly.

He said he is pleased with the way Pilgrimage has been going this year.

“The pageant crowds have been good, they’re best on the nights that the American Queen crowd is here because they bring, on Monday nights, 300 people and that’s a big boost for our crowd,” Coy said.

“We depend heavily upon the regular weekly occurrence of the American Queen passengers and we’re grateful for it.”

With the rising waters, the boat has been threatened several times in its voyage, and with Monday being the last day for it to come, Coy hopes that rising waters doesn’t prevent that.

“We have the American Queen coming one more time and I would hate for all of a sudden for them to say ‘We can’t get here because of the high water,’” he said.

The house tours have received sporadic visitation, Coy said.

“A house may have 250 to 300 guests one day and the next day 100,” he said.

The bus tours have fared well in comparison to last year.

There have been 68 buses to come through thus far and Coy said there is 17 more to come; a total of 85.

As for the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, there has been a flurry of visitors. Director of Tourism Connie Taunton said many people have been coming in and out.

“We’ve been really busy down here at the visitors center,” she said.

Pilgrimage began slow and then picked up, which Taunton said is common.

“It normally does get better later on in the season of Pilgrimage, the first few weeks are always slower and then it picks up and goes on through April after Pilgrimage,” she said.

Local restaurant owners have been pleased with the Pilgrimage turnout.

David Gammill, owner of Fat Mama’s Tamales, said he was not in the crowd of people worried about gas prices and the economy affecting tourism.

“It has been a good year so far,” he said. “We’re happy to have them all come back.”

Anne Vidal Willett, owner of Pig Out Inn, said she’s seen a lot of business come in from Pilgrimage and she’s pleased with sales.

Store owners prepare for Pilgrimage with relish, hanging welcome signs for the Pilgrimage tourists on their doors and waiting to greet the unfamiliar faces.

Andy Copeland, managing member of Bass Pecans, said the store has been doing well during Pilgrimage.

“It’s been a tremendous March as far as sales,” he said.

Many people have stopped by and he has the sales books to prove it, while also having a tangible comparison to last year.

He said this year is much better than last year, in fact.

Natchez Little Theater has seen good attendance for “Southern Exposure,” Artistic and Executive Director Layne Taylor said. It’s been much better than he anticipated, he said.

He said the show has had for sellouts and a near sellout, with attendance ranging between mid 100s to 200s.

“(It’s) great because we only seat 240,” he said.

Hotel, antebellum houses and bed and breakfast owners are pleased across the board with Pilgrimage, as well.

Owner of the Bluff Top Bed and Breakfast, Neil Varnell, said business during Spring Pilgrimage was “slightly better,” than last year. He estimated around 60 percent of his recent business was from the Pilgrimage crowd.

The general manager of Hampton Inn, Janelle Williams, said Pilgrimage crowds provided better than expected business for the hotel.

Williams estimated approximately 70 percent of recent hotel guests were in Natchez for Pilgrimage.

Patricia Lozon, general manager at the newly opened County Inn & Suites also reported high attendance from the Pilgrimage crowd.

However it looks as if some of the business at the newly opened hotels as taken business from the Eola Hotel.

The Eola’s general manager, Ron Brumfield, said business is down 14 percent from 2007’s Pilgrimage season.

But Brumfield said customer loss to other hotels was only part of the problem.

He also cited foul weather and high gas prices as factors that caused the cancellation of 16 bus loads of Pilgrimage goers.

“It just makes things tight,” he said.

Brumfield said he’s counting on April, traditionally a better business month than March, to make up for the slower than normal Pilgrimage season.

Albert Metcalfe, owner of The Parsonage house, said business this year was better than expected.

Metcalf said so far for the 2008 season, 1,680 people toured his home.