Where do the tourists go? Lack of an official visitor center causing a ‘disconnect’ in Natchez

Published 7:27 pm Friday, April 5, 2024

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NATCHEZ — In the midst of Spring Pilgrimage, one of the busiest tourist seasons of the year, the lack of an official Visitor Center is causing a “disconnect” between visitors, tourism officials and local business owners.

Some small business owners in Natchez recently shared frustrations on social media about having to take time away from their businesses to direct lost tourists in the absence of an official Visitor Center.

“People are getting blamed for things out of their control and not part of their job, tourists are being sent all over the place, and I’m spending my time away from my customers to tend to tourists who don’t have an actual definitive Visitor’s Center,” said Olivia Pate, who owns Olivina boutique on Main Street.

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The Visitor Center at 640 S. Canal St., which is now under the ownership of the National Park Service, is closed for renovation at least until late summer.

The City of Natchez plans to renovate the historic Depot on the bluff into a welcome center with public restrooms, a project that Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson said he had hoped would be finished by now.

The old Broadway Street train depot is being renovated by the City of Natchez into a welcome center with public bathrooms. (File photo)

However, construction delays have put the project behind schedule.

Until then, the city is directing tourists to Visit Natchez’s office at 500 Main St. to receive information.

“We do have a disconnect at the moment with a facility that used to be our Visitor Center owned by the federal government and now under renovation and another Visitor Center downtown where parking and accessibility are not ideal,” Gibson said. “We are grateful for everything Visit Natchez does at their current location but no one can deny that having a central location at our depot on Broadway Street for visitors to go is a much needed and long-awaited improvement.”

Therein lies the problem that Visit Natchez — like many other businesses — is understaffed and closed on Saturdays and Sundays when most visitors are around.

“We are relying on Visit Natchez at their location on Main Street to fill that need. We have asked them to be open on Saturday and they have agreed that will be the plan for the new welcome center at the Depot,” Gibson said. “However, they have expressed a challenge like so many are facing at hiring employees.”

Gibson said he is “optimistic that by the end of April (the Depot) will be open,” but that is not much help to the tourists who are here now.

“We are in the final stages of that renovation project,” Gibson said. “Visit Natchez signed a lease to have it staffed six days a week, including Saturday and Sunday. I can’t wait for that to take place. That will be the answer to all of our frustrations.”

On weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Visit Natchez is open for ticket sales and information, said Interim Director Lynsey Gilbert.

“We’ve tried to seek out a weekend employee and it’s not working,” she said, adding the few applicants Visit Natchez has seen lack the preferred experience. “When the city finishes the renovation at the Depot, it will be open Tuesday through Sunday. On Monday we’ll direct them to Visit Natchez to cover all seven days each week. We’re trying to fill that void that the visitor center left.”

In the meantime, Gilbert said Visit Natchez has been sending visitors to the William Johnson House as a weekend alternative. Additionally, online resources are available 24-7, she said.

“A QR code outside the door of Visit Natchez takes visitors to maps of where to eat and what to do on the weekend or even on weekdays after 6 p.m.,” she said. “We’ve also passed out brochures to business owners with the QR code on them. They can scan the code and hopefully find the tools there that they need to have a good time.”

For those who are interested in touring houses and other Spring Pilgrimage-related events, there are resources online for them as well.

Visitors who want to tour Natchez Garden Club-affiliated historic houses can purchase tickets at individual homes or at littleeasytours.com/spring-tours.

The NGC Spring Pilgrimage season ends on April 28. More information on these houses and special events can also be found at https://natchezgardenclub.org/spring-pilgrimage-homes/

Natchez Pilgrimage Tours currently has an office open weekdays and on Saturdays during Spring Pilgrimage at 211 Main St, Suite B. However, the PGC Spring Pilgrimage season ends next week.

The PGC office is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 6 — the last Saturday it will be open until the next tourist season. Weekday hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets to Pilgrimage Garden Club tour homes and more special events can be purchased at natchezpilgrimage.com.