Rebekah Staples

Rebekah Staples

Let’s talk about tourism as an economic driver. The Mississippi Development Authority, the state agency tasked with promoting Mississippi, recently released a set of data points related to the impact tourism has on the state’s economy — from tax revenues to private-sector job creation. It’s a fascinating picture of just how important this oft-underrated industry is to the Hospitality State.

Before I get into the details of the report, I want to come clean. I used to roll my eyes at the thought of tourism being an economic boost for the state. Sure, visitors are important, and maybe they have more discretionary income to spend than Mississippians, but just how many people visit our state?  

Turns out, it’s a lot. These days, my eyes no longer roll; instead, they’re open wide at the numbers of visitors Mississippi receives from all around the country and even the world. 

According to the comprehensive MDA report, in Fiscal Year 2020, the state had an estimated 21 million total visitors (including overnight, day leisure, business, domestic and international). To be clear, that means that we had 21 million visitors — even during part of the pandemic! Forty-four percent of visitors are out-of-state, coming from places like Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and Arkansas. The top international countries of origin were Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, China and Germany.   

Tourism and travel accounted for 80,740 direct jobs in Mississippi, with 98 percent of these jobs in the private sector. The industry also comprised 7.1 percent of total establishment-based non-farm employment — or one of every 14 jobs. This puts travel and tourism as fourth in the state in terms of employment, behind private manufacturing, educational and health services, and retail trade.

Fourth in job creation! That’s significant, y’all. Total jobs in this industry are 106,740, once you include the additional 26,000 indirect and/or induced jobs.

In terms of revenue, travel and tourism provided 6.5 percent of the state’s $5.6 billion general fund, or roughly $362 million in money spent via visitor expenditures, tourism capital investment, and travel and tourism personal income, sales taxes and other taxes.  

What does this mean?  Think about it this way: If travel and tourism were taken away yet all other sectors of Mississippi’s economy stayed constant, the state would see its unemployment rate skyrocket from an annual rate of 7.9 percent to 14.3 percent, and individuals would see their annual taxes increase by $525 to make up for the lost revenue.  

Not too shabby. 

For its part, Laurel was listed in the report as being a tourism place of interest. That’s no surprise, given the huge success of the HGTV show “Home Town,” which has attracted visitors from across the globe. I would be remiss not to mention other factors contributing to Laurel’s tourism success, such as the presence of a regional airport (Hattiesburg-Laurel had 7,933 passenger boardings scheduled for Calendar Year 2020) and the Amtrak station, which is one of 11 stations across the state. Total ridership in Mississippi was 56,586 in FY 2020, with revenues reaching about $4.55 million. (Side note: I’ve always thought it would be fun to take the train from Laurel to New Orleans.) 

Tourism is a critical part of the state’s economy, but we’ve also seen just how dramatically it can change the face of a small town like Laurel. Anecdotally, I’ve experienced the growing pains associated with tourism boosts — such as being unable to find parking in downtown or having to wait in line for a table at a local restaurant.  But these are growing pains I heartily welcome, because the more people who visit our state and city, the more likely we are to continue seeing economic growth and prosperity.

And what’s that they say about a rising tide lifts all boats? I certainly believe that. So, tourists, welcome to the Hospitality State. Come visit us, spend some money and — most importantly — tell your friends about your wonderful experience in Mississippi! 

Rebekah Staples is president of Free State Strategies, a public policy consulting firm. She can be reached at


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