TUPELO – He may be Tupelo’s native son, but Elvis Presley’s appeal and influence stretches far beyond the borders of Lee County.

The Tupelo Elvis Presley Festival kicked off Friday, drawing its share of visitors who came from near and far to pay homage to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Five different countries, including Belgium, Canada and Germany, were represented in online ticket sales, according to Megan McCarty, the marketing and public relations specialist for the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association, which puts on the festival.

“We’re so lucky he’s (Elvis) from Tupelo and he has the international appeal,” McCarty said. “We enjoy welcoming people from other countries and different backgrounds to Tupelo.”

She estimated Friday afternoon that international tourists made up about 10 percent of the festival attendees.

Throughout the year, international guests make up 44 percent of Tupelo’s tourism traffic, according to Linda Johnson, executive director of the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau. She cited numbers gathered by the state’s tourism department and figures from the Elvis Presley Birthplace.

The birthplace reports a wide range of visitors every month to the CVB. For example, in May, 3,082 people visited the birthplace from 44 states and 29 countries.

About 270 of those international visitors came from England. Other countries of origin included Australia, China, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Spain, Italy, France, Russia and Thailand.

Twenty-five Elvis fans from Germany made the trip to Tupelo to attend the weekend festival. Werner Michels is tour operator for the German Elvis fans. He said every year the group travels to a place where the King had an influence. Last year it was Las Vegas and next year will be Hawaii. But this year they decided to pay a visit to where it all started.

“This is our first time coming to the Elvis Festival here in Tupelo,” said Michels, who’s led tours to the Elvis Presley Birthplace several times. “We are really having a great time. The people are wonderful and the festival is very well put together.”

Next to the British, Michels said the Germans are the biggest Elvis fans in the world.

“There is a big Elvis following in Germany,” he said. “It started with parents years ago and has been taking on a new generation ever since. We have Elvis fans of all ages. And there is no language barrier. A lot of us may not be able to talk to you fluently, but we know all the songs word-for-word.”

For this weekend, translations were done early. Signs around the festival are written in English, Spanish, German and Japanese.

Accents were the only giveaways for the German tourists. With his thick sideburns and vintage Elvis hairstyle, Thomas Eisenhus had the look down. A lifelong Elvis fan, the 42-year-old German said Elvis is a way of life for him.

“I remember when Elvis died,” said Eisenhus. “It hit Germany very hard. He was the King there just like here. I’ve been playing his music since I was a boy and it still hasn’t gotten old.”

Tupelo wasn’t their only Lee County stop. The group went to Verona to witness the re-enactment of the marriage of Vernon and Gladys Presley, Elvis’ parents. As a part of the Verona Heritage Festival, the town puts on the re-enactment every year.

The love of the King also brought in Isabel Norrington from England and Michael Beckett from Australia.

“This is my third time coming here and I’ve enjoyed it every trip,” said Norrington. “I’ve been to Graceland a few times and Las Vegas, but I like the small town feel of the Tupelo festival. People here are really passionate about Elvis and that’s how the English are.”

Beckett also is becoming a regular, this being his second Elvis festival. Like so many of the other men walking around downtown Tupelo, Beckett was Elvis from head to toe.

“I was in the states on other business and decided to come back to Tupelo because I had so much fun last year,” he said. “People don’t see nationality when it comes to being an Elvis fan. Whether you’re from Tupelo or Australia, we’re all here for the love of the King.”

Susan Lonk said her experience at the Elvis Festival is going to give her some great memories to take back to Germany.

“I’ve been an Elvis fan since 11,” she said. “Ever since I saw the movie Blue Hawaii I’ve been a fan. This has been a great experience coming to this festival in Tupelo. Elvis just seems so familiar to me.”

Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or danza.johnson@djournal.com. Contact Carlie Collath at (662) 678-1598 or carlie.kollath@djournal.com.

Today’s event

– What: Sunday Gospel service

– Where: First United Methodist Church n Time: 2 p.m.

– Entertainers: The Foyer Boyz, The Landmarks, Travis LeDoyt

And the winner is…

– Bill Cherry of Illinois took the crown at the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition on Saturday night. He won $2,500, guitar from Tupelo Hardware and a replica bronze Elvis Statue.

Javon of Ohio took second place, winning $1,000. Third place went to Justin Shandor, a world traveler, winning $500.

Carlie Kollath and Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal

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