Businesses look to summer tourists on Miss. coast

May 26, 2012 

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Hopes are high that the summer will bring visitors and their money to Mississippi's coastal attractions as Memorial Day weekend kicks off the period of increased tourism.

While casinos bring visitors year-round, other Gulf Coast businesses are built around the lure of beaches and water.

Louis Skrmetta, whose family owns Ship Island Excursions, predicted that this year could bring 10 percent more customers to his business if the weather cooperates. The company ferries beachgoers between Gulfport and West Ship Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

His boats are allowed to carry as many as 1,200 visitors a day to the island. Skrmetta said Friday that he expects the boats will be full the Sunday before Memorial Day, and nearly full on Saturday. The holiday is traditionally a good indicator of how the rest of the season will go, and Skrmetta said he hopes to top the 44,000 passengers he carried in 2011.

"We feel like it's going to be a really good summer," he said.

The summer of 2010 was mostly wiped out by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and tourism has never returned to pre-Hurricane Katrina levels, partly because many hotel rooms were destroyed and never replaced. Other businesses have been slow to rebuild after the 2005 storm, such as the iconic Sharkheads souvenir store in Biloxi. The owners are hoping to finally reopen in June.

J.J. Pierotich, whose family owns Sharkheads, says business has been good this spring at sister store Souvenir City, stoking his optimism for the summer.

"Each year improves quite a bit over the previous year from Katrina," Pierotich said.

He said the coast still needs more attractions for families and more non-casino hotel rooms. Hoteliers who had hoped to build a Hilton Garden Inn near Sharkheads shelved plans after financing fell apart during the recession, Pierotich said.

Some new attractions have arrived. The Infinity Science Center at NASA's Stennis Space Center opened in April. Biloxi is hosting the first-ever "Party at the Point," a three-day music and art festival running Friday through Sunday at Point Cadet. It's one of a number of tourism events that have been subsidized by BP PLC following the spill.

Other attractions, like a rebuilt wave pool at Buccaneer State Park in Waveland are on the way. Leaders in Gulfport floated the idea earlier this month to build a baseball stadium, theater, bowling alley and other stores for Mississippi State Port Authority property near Gulfport's renovated small craft harbor.

Many summer visitors come by car. Beth Carriere, executive director of the Harrison County Tourism Commission, said the group is seeking to lure travelers off Interstate 10 to visit up to 30 destinations to search for "Beach Foot," a mythical creature leaving giant footprints in the sand.

And casinos still remain the anchor of the coast's tourism industry.

"Year-round, the casinos are doing promotions," said Kim Fritz, marketing chair for the Gulf Coast Regional Tourism Partnership and a former casino marketing executive.

Scott King, director of research and policy for the Gulf Coast Business Council, said retail sales rose in the first quarter of 2012, and the opening of the Margaritaville Biloxi Casino should provide a boost this summer.

"We believe that the Margaritaville project, with its brand that has millions of loyal fans, is another reason to believe that our tourism industry is well positioned to compete for pent up demand, dampened by the recession, not only in 2012 but in the years to come," King said.

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