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Sunday Focus: Tourism industry ready to reopen with safety precautions

NATCHEZ — Tourism is beginning to pick back up in Natchez after having been shut down since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the direction of Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and Natchez city officials, the Natchez Visitor Center reopened last Monday, operating under COVID-19 guidelines, including social distancing regulations and having Plexiglass shields for attendants.

The Visitor Center is now open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, officials said, and state welcome center staff members are there seven days a week. The restrooms are open 24 hours.

One of the first tourism events to be affected by the COVID-19 shutdown in March was the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage, which had begun March 14 but was later postponed on March 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Natchez pilgrimage events and historic house tours had been on hold ever since but historic houses reopened for tours this weekend.

Pilgrimage Tours back on

On Friday, Natchez Pilgrimage Tours reopened its booth inside the Visitor Center and the booth will be open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday every week going forth, said Eugenie Cates, Natchez Pilgrimage Tours director and Natchez Pilgrimage Garden Club president.

“We are opening the museum houses here in Natchez this weekend,” Cates said on Friday.

Historic Natchez houses that are now open for tours, Cates said, include The Towers, Choctaw Hall, Stanton Hall, Oak Hill, House on Ellicott Hill, Monmouth, Lansdowne, Longwood, Auburn, Glenfield and Magnolia Hall.

Some houses, Cates said, including Auburn, Glenfield and Lansdowne, are accessible by appointment only, so visitors will have make appointments and purchase tickets at the NPT booth inside the Natchez Visitor Center. Tickets also can be purchased and schedules viewed online at the Natchez Pilgrimage Tours website at natchezpilgrimage.com.

Cates said the tours and the NPT booth at the visitor center are operating under COVID-19 guidelines.

“We are following all the guidelines set out by CDC (The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and Museum Association of America and local task force guidelines,” Cates said. “There will be sanitation stations, and the employees will have masks. We are asking that the guests have masks and keep a social distance. We had plexiglass made for the gift shops, so we’ve been waiting for some of those things to be delivered. This will be our first weekend to be open.”

Cates said pre-sale tickets are trending upward, especially for the fall Pilgrimage.

“We are definitely selling tickets,” Cates said. “Our presales for fall are looking good. The volume is starting to trend upward. We have presold for this weekend a good number so we do feel there will be some folks in town.”

Cates said pilgrimage tours officials are viewing this weekend as a test run for next weekend.

“Next weekend is Father’s Day, and we do have a good number of presales for Father’s Day weekend,” Cates said. “We thought this weekend would be a good time to kind of knock the cobwebs off and get back into the swing of things, so we will be prepared for next weekend. I think we will see more volume next weekend.”

Visit Natchez

Jennifer Ogden Combs, executive director of Visit Natchez and Natchez Convention Promotion Commission, said she has seen an uptick in visitors and interest in visiting Natchez in recent weeks.

“We are seeing a lot of people from Texas,” Combs said, adding she spends time driving around looking license plates in Natchez on the weekends. “We’ve had people from Georgia, Alabama, Florida. I’ve seen tags from Illinois. That’s a long distance.”

Combs said most of the visitors, however, come from within a 400-mile radius on a two-tank turnaround weekend trip.

“This is great, if we can keep this up,” Combs said, adding that Visit Natchez is producing digital advertising to draw those visitors.

“Our partners have been great about the things that they are doing, specials that they are doing, things like that that are what people are looking for, too,” Combs said.

During normal times, prior to COVID-19, many tourists came to Natchez via riverboat cruise lines traveling on the Mississippi River.

Combs said the cruise lines have indicated they will be back but a date has not yet been set for cruises to resume.

In the meantime, Combs said she is encouraged by the interest she has seen from potential visitors to Natchez.

“We are seeing a lot of interest both through the analytics on our website and also through calls and through the marketing and advertising we’ve been doing,” Combs said.

Natchez National Historical Park

A reopening date has not yet been set for the Natchez National Historical Park, said Kathleen Bond, superintendent of the park.

“We have plans that we have submitted for approval,” Bond said, adding she is hopeful outdoor areas of the park can be reopened on June 22 but she is awaiting approval.

Bond said the downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic has given the park a chance to make some needed changes.

“The truth is we needed to diversify our product offerings anyway,” Bond said.

To that end Bond said when the park reopens it will feature more self-guided tour options at Melrose that will give visitors a chance to explore the property on their own and at their own pace.

“We are also finalizing plans for a Civil War driving tour,” Bond said, adding those options will be safer for people in the COVID-19 environment.

Meanwhile, Ft. Rosalie is currently the park’s only open property.

People can walk through the property and use the picnic tables, Bond said.

“Our approach in the Department of Interior is a three-phase reopening,” Bond said. “When we get to phase two we will begin to do some interpretive programming at Melrose. Phase one at Melrose is when we will allow people to come on the grounds. At phase two we will start to do limited interpretive programming. Once we get to phase three, we will see when that is, later this summer, is when people will be taking house tours at Melrose again.”

Bond said she thinks Natchez is primed for a rebound in tourism.

“We need to give a lot of encouragement to our tourism partners in town,” Bond said, “because they are having to do a lot of hard work pretty quickly. They are having to really think through what had been a very traditional industry. I think we need to be encouraging and compassionate with our partners, but I also think we need to share all of the good ideas that we have. We need a lot of smart brains. Natchez is inherently hospitable and so because we are so visitor-oriented I think we are well-positioned to help people understand the changes they may encounter with a good nature.”