Tourism officials get ready for Spring Pilgrimage

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 6, 2009

NATCHEZ — Ricky Smith remembers a time during Pilgrimage when he would get to his shop, Natchez Antiques, at 8 in the morning and stay until 8 at night.

“I miss the early morning and the late evenings,” he said. “We don’t get that anymore.”

For 10 years, Smith said Pilgrimage numbers have been waning, and merchants and tourism officials have been fighting to strengthen the numbers.

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“I’m not ready to give in to these naysayers on tourism. I’m not,” Smith said.

So Smith has readied himself for the start of Spring Pilgrimage Saturday, as have homeowners, restaurant owners and Natchez Pilgrimage Tours officials.

Hopes are high and all involved expect a lot more regional tourists.

That’s what’s been marketed — the 200-to 300-mile radius.

NPT Director Marsha Colson said in a way, Pilgrimage is going back to the basics.

“I think there are a huge number of people in Natchez and in a 100-mile radius that have never been to Pilgrimage, have never been to the pageant, never toured a house,” Colson said.

Through advertising on local radio, she said they are appealing to regional residents.

“We’re reaching out to individuals and the small market basis that we did in the early years,” she said.

Smith said he’s been targeting his advertising toward Alexandria, Monroe and Baton Rouge.

And he said expects a lot of traffic from those areas.

Day-tripping is the term of choice among business owners and merchants.

“People are willing to take a day trip,” said Brenda Zerby, Moreton’s Flowerland owner.

With gas prices down from the previous year, Zerby said taking a day trip is much more plausible.

Colson said she hopes for a strong showing of individual tourists, as individuals make up 80 percent of the spring business.

“The one great unknown is how many individuals will come in,” she said.

However, she said group tours aren’t looking strong at this point.

“They’re down 15 percent from last year,” Colson said.

But that’s including the absence of the Delta Queen and the American Queen steamboat tours.

“Things are going to be a little different because we don’t have the queens coming in,” Smith said.

The absence of the steamboat traffic will not go unnoticed, Zerby said.

“We’re certainly going to miss our boat people tremendously,” she said.

The attitude still remains positive, however.

Pig Out Inn owner Anne Willet said her expectations are high.

“I’m optimistic,” she said.

Willet said on good Pilgrimage days, people will be lined outside the door for her barbecue.

“We get a pretty good group,” she said.

Ethel Banta, owner of Hope Farm, said last year an average of between 200 and 300 people came through her house each day it was on tour.

Fat Mama’s Tamales owner David Gammill said on his good days last year, his restaurant served between 100 and 150 people.

And even if numbers don’t skyrocket and this year is slower than previous years, Gammill said there will still be a benefit.

“All it does is help bring more people to town,” he said.