Are this year’s tourism numbers 300 years in the making?

Published 12:02 am Sunday, July 17, 2016

NATCHEZ — The first six months of the 2016 Natchez Tricentennial represent the strongest first half of the years for visitors stopping in Natchez since 2009.

Now, the plan is to continue that upward trend and get those visitors to spend more money while they’re in town.

From January to June, the Natchez Visitor Reception Center logged a total of 98,010 visitors.

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That’s the closest those numbers have approached the previous first six-month numbers by a significant margin since 2009, when the same period brought 99,267 visitors.

In 2015, the numbers for that period were 92,018; in 2014, they were 93,098; in 2013, 87,553; in 2012, 84,178; in 2011, 90,190; in 2010, 87,453.

Some of that growth can be attributed to a continued if uneven economic recovery after the end of the five-year recession in the late 2000s, but local tourism officials say the tricentennial effort — with its increased advertising and partnerships with national marketing firms such as Lou Hammond and Associates — has played a significant role in driving increased Natchez visitation.

Natchez Convention Center Director Walter Tipton said the center’s business was particularly up in April, May and June, playing host venue to national groups such as the Inland Ports and Rivers conference and state associations for firefighters, chancery and circuit clerks and tax assessors.

“By and large, those state associations have not been to Natchez in a little while, and they were all kind of sold on the fact that this is during our tricentennial year, so it is a great year to bring your group to Natchez,” Tipton said.

Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau Director of Sales  Lynsey Smith said the tricenteniel has served as a hook in selling the city for those conventions.

“A lot of the Mississippi associations are being very supportive, and they want to be a part of our history,” she said. “They are saying that there is so much to do in Natchez all the time, but when I give them a copy of what is going on, they are really impressed.”

Other organizations, how-ever, such as the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, likely wouldn’t have come to Natchez except for the tricentenniel, Smith said.

“I highly doubt they would have come to Natchez for any other reason — they are solely coming to be part of the celebration,” she said.

“It has been amazing, a really incredible year,” Tricentennial Director and Interim Tourism Director Jennifer Ogden Combs said. “Visitors are up, numbers are up at the visitor’s center, at hotels and with the $2 tourism tax — those are all consistently up.”

Across the board — the $2 hotel and bed-and-breakfast occupancy tax, the 3 percent lodging tax and the 1.5 percent restaurant tax — revenues are up cumulatively against last year and have been up an upward trend for the past five years, Combs said.

“We are considerably up over last year cumulatively, and looking at monthly reports, we are a little bit above — and in some cases a good bit above — last year,” she said.

Attendance numbers may also be increasing because the Tricentennial Commission has encouraged not only marketing the city’s 300th anniversary, but the creation of new events to bring visitors into the city as well, Combs said.

“More new things — new events — are being created to capitalize on the fact that we’re 300 and the fact that there has been a lot of attention on the city,” she said.

“For example, the European auto festival is looking at coming back, and that is the kind of thing that we are hoping will have longevity coming out of the tricentennial, that will continue year-to-year. Sometimes it won’t happen overnight, but if you give people the opportunity, things can start to grow, and the support we have gotten has been tremendous.”