Mississippi Coast hopes tourism returns to normal

By Mary Foster/The Associated Press

BILOXI — As Brent Pierotich stood facing the sparkling white sand of Biloxi and glittering Gulf of Mexico he saw a beautiful sight: lines forming in front of the cash registers of his family’s business.

For Pierotich, the Memorial Day weekend will be a big test for how the summer is going to go. After the BP oil spill put a heavy damper on business last year, he’s hoping this summer will be as bright as the beach.

“We all need it,” said Pierotich, while manning a cash register at Souvenir City, the bright pink building with a huge open-mouthed alligator head protruding from the front that has become a landmark on Highway 90 since it first opened in 1973. “We didn’t reopen after Hurricane Katrina until 2009.”

The massive storm and the 28-foot storm surge that pushed water inland for as much as 12 miles, obliterating much structures — homes and business — along the coast. Business had been recovering before fear of oil-coated beaches kept the tourists away last summer. Rumors of dead sea life and black tar balls on the beaches left the beach, the restaurants and souvenir shops deserted.

“We noticed after a while that business had really slowed down,” Pierotich said. “And instead of tourists we were just seeing to oil spill workers.”

It’s hard to get a good estimate on how much business dropped last summer, said Linda Hornsby, executive director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association.

“We got a false reading for last summer,” Hornsby said. “It actually showed an increased occupancy, but that was due to oil spill workers and it waned as summer went on and was at much reduced rates.”

Although the 13,000 hotel rooms in the three-county area are not completely sold out for every night of the long weekend, Hornsby said those without reservations will have to scramble to find accommodations.

“Is it better than last Memorial Day — definitely,” she said. “We’re even starting to hear the phone ring about charter boats. It’s still not to where it should be, but that indicates the perception is shifting from what it was last summer.”

Theresa Willis was working as a cocktail waitress in one of the casinos last summer. But when her hours and her tips started to drop, she said she moved to New England where jobs were more lucrative.

On Friday Willis was stretched out on a beach chair, oiled up and enjoying the sunshine before heading to work. She and a girlfriend moved back to the coast a week ago, believing the summer would be a good one.

“I love the coast,” Willis said. “A nice crowd comes here, lots of families and couples. So I’m definitely hoping things are back to normal.”

Ruth and Harry Boyd, a retired couple from Baltimore, were doing their part. Their RV was pulled into a parking lot in Gulfport, and they were headed for a long walk on the sand.

“We’ve been to the beach before,” Ruth Boyd said. “But last year we stayed away. There was so much talk about the oil. This year the talk had died down, so we took a chance, and everything is great.”

In fact, all along the stretch of Mississippi seaside, optimism was high as families started rolling into town and stretching out in the sunshine.

“We have a great weekend coming up,” said Taryn Sammons, of the Visitors and Convention Bureau. “We never got oil, but now our beaches are super clean, and we have a ton of stuff going on. So we really believe we’ll get summer off to a great start.”

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