Tourism still alive in Natchez

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 7, 2010

Spring Pilgrimage 2010 kicked off Saturday under sunny skies and a nervous sense of optimism.

Although the weather is always unpredictable during Pilgrimage, the opening night jitters are all too common.

The houses are primped.

The pageant volunteers are rehearsed and ready.

The choirs are in tune and ready to jam.

And the fliers and promotions have long been distributed.

So now it’s time to wait and see if tourists will come.

Years ago, when tours buses flowed down Main Street like barges on a flood-swollen river, times were good.

Residents could see clear, physical evidence that tourists had arrived. If they needed more proof, getting stuck behind a fume-spitting bus crawling through downtown would pretty much eliminate any doubts.

At the same time, pre-Katrina, the steamboats sidled up to the riverbank and spat out endless streams of cash-laden out-of-towners in pantsuits and white socks with black sandals.

The sheer mass of people exiting the boats was physical evidence of the local tourist trade. The sounds emanating from the steamboats’ calliopes didn’t hurt either.

Today, the steamboats are gone. The buses far less frequent than in the heydays.

Yet, Natchez’s tourism industry is still alive.

The lack of such clear, physical evidence, however, makes the community’s doubters come out of the woodwork, crying foul and announcing that tourism is dead.

Those folks would find a way to bad-mouth even the greatest news.

“I won the lottery? Great. Now I have drive all the way over to the bank to deposit my check.”

Our community cannot let those few crybabies gain the edge in the collective conversation.

Tourism is a big industry here, no doubt. But could it be so much more?

In the years after the first Pilgrimage and continuing through the 1980s it was merely a matter of opening the doors and waiting for tourists to flock in.

But the world has changed and continues to change.

Our history is at the heart of why people want to come to Natchez. And we should never lose our focus on that core fact, but maybe how we tell that history needs to be changed.

When Spring Pilgrimage ends this year, wouldn’t it be great if representatives from all the various groups in our community could sit down and discuss what’s working and what may need to be revised, eliminated or added?

Start thinking through things and lots of “what ifs” come up. Do we need as many performances of the nighttime entertainment, for example?

Is there a way to capitalize on the city’s historic cemetery, maybe with a fixed schedule of nighttime tours during Pilgrimage or perhaps a downtown architectural tour?

And, Lord knows we need to consider adding activities that are family oriented and more child-friendly.

Common sense indicates that we must work together toward constantly tweaking our tourism efforts.

Focusing on how can we improve the value we offer tourists will improve our community and ourselves.

Then, the period of nervous optimism that precedes each Spring Pilgrimage will be a little less nervous and a lot more optimistic.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.