Get ready for more food and fun to boost Coast tourism

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Architect David Hardy with Eley Guild Hardy discusses design and look of the Mississippi Aquarium at its unveiling, Friday, March 24, 2016. The aquarium is one of the attractions expected to boost tourism in South Mississippi and add jobs.

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Architect David Hardy with Eley Guild Hardy discusses design and look of the Mississippi Aquarium at its unveiling, Friday, March 24, 2016. The aquarium is one of the attractions expected to boost tourism in South Mississippi and add jobs.

BY MARY PEREZ meperez@sunherald.com Twitter: MaryPerezSH

This is National Tourism Week and in South Mississippi, "it's a very exciting time," said Rene Areng, who promotes fun things to do and great places to eat and stay across the Coast.

She is director of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, which was organized in July 2013 to deliver a unified tourism message for all three Coast counties.

"We think one voice is really working," she said. "People are coming."

There were 5.8 million visitors to the Coast in 2015 who spent $1.9 billion, according to numbers from the Mississippi Development Authority. Tourism supported 29,800 leisure and hospitality jobs, yet the board of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast eyes even bigger numbers.

By 2020, they want 7 million visitors a year, $2.3 billion in tourism spending and 10,000 new tourism jobs in South Mississippi.

This summer will add to the totals when Margaritaville Resort Biloxi opens in June with its Escape entertainment center. A bowling alley is under construction at Big Play Family Fun Park in Biloxi; two new trampoline parks are opening soon in D'Iberville and Gulfport; and Gulf Islands Water Park is back for the season this weekend with the Zip'N Fun Adventure Park, which debuted earlier this year in Gulfport.

The amount of construction and the tourism energy are being seen and felt coastwide, Areng said. New hotels at Silver Slipper, Island View and Scarlet Pearl casinos and the hotels under construction across the Coast finally will push the room count back above pre-Hurricane Katrina levels, she said. An aquarium and Fun Time USA amusement park for Gulfport and waterfront development in Pascagoula and Bay St. Louis also are adding to the tourism buzz, as are new restaurants in almost every city.

Areng is especially encouraged by the likelihood Amtrak passenger service will return to South Mississippi and the announcement of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon, coming in December. Already runners from 24 states and five countries have signed up to take part in the run along the beach, she said.

To help visitors find Coast attractions and restaurants, Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast just got a grant to fund an app for the Shrimp Signs. These round signs are displayed at every major intersection along U.S. 90 and correspond with a brochure available at local visitors centers. The app will get the information onto visitors' phones and tablets.

"We will launch it with a scavenger hunt component," Areng said.

There are gaps and challenges to getting more tourists to South Mississippi, in particular limited air service to Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. She said the airline industry has not helped with new flights, but there was success last year teaming with Sun Country Airlines to bring flights for 13 weeks to and from Minneapolis. Areng said flights were 78 percent occupied, a large improvement over the expected 55 percent. VMGC had an agreement with the airline and a grant to cover a shortfall, but never had to spend the money, she said.

Those flights will return in the fall and a similar flight between Gulfport-Biloxi and Tampa is in the works, Areng said.

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