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Visit Mississippi director Craig Ray says legislative policy, like this year’s House Bill 1523, won’t affect how he goes about doing his job.
Ray, who takes office Monday, says his office will focus solely on seeking to attract more and new visitors to the Magnolia State.
“There are a lot of states, many states in the South and around the country, that already have pieces of that legislation in place in their state,” Ray told Mississippi Today in an interview as he prepared to take his new post. “So if it’s a small hurdle for them, it’s not something we’re focusing on at the tourism level.”
Ray hopes his experience can get Mississippi’s tourism numbers back to those the state enjoyed before Hurricane Katrina.
In “2004, in that year, the first year in the Haley Barbour administration here in the state, the number of tourists visiting the whole state was over 30 million people a year, and the tourism product was about a $6.1 to $6.2 billion industry for the state,” said Ray.
In 2004, Barbour appointed Ray to be tourism director of the Mississippi Development Authority, where he served for six years.
Since the 2005 hurricane, not only has the Mississippi Gulf Coast struggled to regain its tourism momentum, so has the entire state.
“After Katrina, those numbers went down. Really from about 30 million visitors down to 20 to 22 million,” Ray noted.
Losing that many visitors leaves Mississippi towards the bottom of popularity among tourists in the Southeast region. According to businessinsider.com, among Southern states, only Kentucky and Arkansas were less popular in 2014. The study looks at more than 87,000 hotel bookings made through one of the leading comparison sites to determine the popularity of travel to different states.
For Ray, getting back to 30 million annual visitors and being competitive with neighboring states, are his biggest goals as he resumes the role of tourism director.
After leaving the post, his next stop was at Talon Lobbying and Consulting Group representing the Mississippi Tourism Association, and Ray has been on boards for U.S. Travel, Travel South and the Southeast Tourism Society.
There is good news though, according to Visit Mississippi’s FY 2015 report on the Economic Contribution of Travel and Tourism in Mississippi. That report shows that tourism increased an estimated 1.5 percent to 22.33 million total visitors.
As a result of that increase, tourism contributed $388.7 million to the state’s economy. So increasing travel and tourism in Mississippi is important because of its value to the state’s economy, Ray said.
“We get to 30 million visitors at the return on investment and the number of dollars spent, it will show in the general fund contribution for tourism and industry,” Ray said. “It will help all of the local communities. The water and boat will rise up together.”
Ray is stepping into the job at a good time, because there’s more money for advertisement than there has been in a number of years.
“At this point, the state of Mississippi, the tourism industry, has more tourism dollars than its had in the past 15 or 20 years,” he said.
That additional money is coming in part from the first installment of money from the BP Oil Spill settlement, and Visit Mississippi also is getting a boost in funding to prepare for Mississippi’s Bicentennial celebration next year.
The Bicentennial is one shot that Ray has to push what he hopes can be a part of Mississippi’s message moving forward.
“Our best interpretation, our best tourists, are those that have been here,” said Ray, “The message is and will be for going into the Bicentennial is we want people to come back home and visit the state, not just for the Bicentennial, but to experience all we have to offer.”
With this extra funding, Ray thinks it’s a time to get a true reading on Mississippi’s competitiveness among southern states.
“It’ll give us a true number on what our return on investment will be on advertising,” Ray said. “We haven’t had that opportunity in years because of budgetary constraints. I really think it’s an opportunity with the Bicentennial additional funds to see how we can be competitive, and really let our advertising message work.”
Ray says for every advertising dollar spent, there’s a $12 return.
But getting an understanding of how to get money for advertisement can be difficult.
“It’s always a challenge to, the education process of how the advertising dollar works, and to show the return on investment for the appropriation process,” he said.