This year's parade marks 36 years of the celebration. Hal & Mal's co-owner and Mississippi Arts Commission Executive Director Malcolm White founded the event to both celebrate the arrival of spring in a similar fashion to Mardi Gras but—and more importantly—to create something original that celebrates the uniqueness and diversity of Jackson.
"There's not an exclusivity about it. You don't have to join, you don't have to pay dues," White says. "It's unusual because it's very Jackson. It's a homecoming; it's an occasion where many people who have grown up here, go to school here, can come back. It's an enormous event, highly successful, and it is one of the key tourism events for Jackson, Mississippi."
The Jackson Police Department estimates the average annual attendance of the parade, to be around 75,000 people. Even on rainy and cold days, the numbers have still reached as high as 50,000, JPD data show.
The parade, and other events, provide economic support for the city and bolster its progress year after year. The Mississippi Development Authority reported that Hinds County made a total of $361,888,895 in travel and tourism expenditures for fiscal-year 2017, supporting more than 6,000 industry jobs.
"(The parade is) organic," White says. "It's homegrown, and it's incredibly successful. It's just literally something for everyone, in this mishmash celebration of spring, and it has lasted a very long time."
The Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, also known as Visit Jackson, works to promote aspects of the city and encourage people to experience what it has to offer, partnering with state tourism organization Visit Mississippi on some projects. Visit Jackson's Communication and Destination Development Manager Kim Lewis says this diversity is what makes Jackson such a great city.
"It's not hard to see where the city of Jackson has embraced its diversity," she says. "You could walk into a restaurant, walk into a museum, and you're going to see a diverse group of people who were there. Our citizens and the community are already mingling. It's something we're able to celebrate here, not something that we have to really explain."
Visit Jackson uses the tagline "The City with SOUL," which Lewis explains refers to the citizens who represent what Jackson is all about. As members of the marketing team, both Lewis and Jonathan Pettus, vice president of marketing, make highlighting the people of Jackson and the things they create the focus of their marketing strategy.
Pettus says the organization's newest commercial, a one-minute spot that's circulating on local news stations and social media, connects the dots between the people and tourism in the city. The video shows scenes in the city, from shots of buildings downtown to a father and son playing in the fountain at the Mississippi Museum of Art to the Prancing J-Settes performing at a Jackson State University game.
"In our city, my city, we gather, we connect and we work together so things like streets, schools, neighborhoods and communities, mom-and-pops and record shops, big, buzzing industries and little French eateries can be made better, stronger, unstoppable, untoppable, survivors and thrivers, makers, shakers, dreamers and doers," the narrator says, adding, "City with heart, city with life, city with soul, Jackson."
One of Visit Jackson's current focuses is the city's food industry. The day after this issue goes to press, the organization is unveiling the cover of its new visitors' guide, which will celebrate the city's culinary world.
The organization also promotes civil-rights and historical tourism, especially since the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened in December 2017. Pettus says Visit Jackson partners with Visit Mississippi, the Mississippi Development Authority's tourism arm, on other projects, including promoting the city's music during this summer's Chicago Blues Festival.
Touring Through the Magnolia State
In 2018, the state had more than 24 million visitors from other states and across the world, Mississippi Tourism Association data show. The primary purpose of the nonprofit organization is to "support and empower Mississippi's tourism industry through advocacy and education," Executive Director Rochelle Hicks says. MTA's job is to lobby for state tourism as a whole, while member organizations work to promote tourism in their sectors.
"We lobby for anything that is tourism-related, and one of those main things we lobby for is tourism funding, so that's a big part of what we do," Hicks says.
The tourism industry is the fourth-largest private industry in the state, providing 87,610 jobs direct jobs and 37,950 indirect jobs—about 11 percent of all jobs in Mississippi. Data from the Mississippi Development Authority show that tourism plays a significant role in supporting the state as a whole.
Hicks has been the executive director of MTA for about six years. She served as the deputy director of the Ridgeland Tourism Commission, is a member of the MTA, and was on MTA's board of directors for three years before she took her current position. She says that the organization's current objective is to help Mississippi compete against other states like Alabama and Arkansas by lobbying for greater funding than state government is already spending on tourism promotion and support.
Visit Mississippi, the tourism division of the MDA, is tasked with marketing and promoting the state by working with local communities, various marketing organizations and media outlets such as TV, radio and particularly social media, says Craig Ray, the director of Visit Mississippi. "It's all about making visitors from anywhere, domestic or foreign, want to revisit the state of Mississippi over others," he says.
"It's a very competitive business for the tourist, for domestic travelers but also for the international traveler," Ray says. Mississippi mostly competes with other southern states like Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana to attract domestic tourists, but also works with them on an international level for tourists across the world, he says.
Since Mississippi shares a joint domestic market with about 12 other southern states, Mississippi competes for people to things like sporting events, or to partake in specific pieces of tourism that local convention and visitors bureaus are promoting
As the director, Ray's job involves working to promote the state in all possible facets "as a travel destination and film location by highlighting the state's culture, heritage, history, natural resources and recreational opportunities through a multi-faceted marketing effort," he says.
Ray was originally the director of Visit Mississippi from 2004 to 2009. Between 2009 and 2016, he was a member of the Talon Group, LLC, a government relations firm, and also produced various statewide and national events. He returned to Visit Mississippi in 2016.
"Something that's very important to Visit Mississippi, and to the state of Mississippi (is that) as a whole, (is that) we are a drive-in state," Ray says.
That means that more than 90 percent of people who visit drive here.
Visit Mississippi manages 13 welcome centers (not to be confused with MDOT-run rest stops, Ray says), and the State has 45 employees across those locations. In 2018, 2.6 million people came through welcome centers, Ray says, and engaged with staff, requesting information or itineraries or travel information for that area.
"(That) probably didn't include the other five million people that stopped at those welcome centers to rest or visit, not necessarily request information," he says, "so that's a drive-in state welcome center for us. Other states may not have the same setup that we do, but we use our hospitality and welcome centers as a very important first step for the traveler."
In promoting the state through welcome centers, Visit Mississippi works with CVBs and other hospitality entities to promote restaurants, hotels, museums and golf courses in particular areas at the welcome centers. At trade shows they highlight particular entities in an industry and more.
Past and Present Attractions
An important piece of tourism for both Jackson and Mississippi is civil-rights and historical tourism. Ray views it as an means of drawing in even more people to learn about where Mississippi is now.
"We don't work around it," he says. "We look it as an opportunity for the traveler. The civil rights, the heritage, the culture—we look for those stories."
A popular destination is the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the first state-funded civil rights museum in the country, along with its sister facility, the Museum of Mississippi History.
Stephenie Morrisey, the deputy director of programs and communication at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, explains that the stories the civil-rights museum tells are a part of what make it such a popular tourist destination, with more than 250,000 people visiting the museum as of Dec. 31, 2018.
"The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is really unique in telling a story that is focused on the state and the local history of everyday people who fought for civil rights," Morrisey says.
In dealing with the state's often dark past, the design and layout of the museum creates a space that chooses to fully embrace that time period so all visitors can experience it.
"We do not shy away from the truth, and I think the design is part of an intentionality in different areas," Morrisey says. "It feels oppressive, it will feel cramped in certain areas, so you can feel what people were feeling in that segregated time in Mississippi. We are committed to sharing the history, and all the beauty and pain of it."
Along with the two history museums, the state also has the Mississippi Freedom Trail, which documents notable places and events in the Civil Rights Movement. The state is now part of the United States Civil Rights Trail, a 15-state partnership to promote civil-rights tourism in the South and U.S.
"[W]e're proud to be a part of that trail and the tourists it brings to Mississippi to see our story," Ray says.
Then there's the music and literary aspects of the state. The Mississippi Blues Trail has 175 markers across the state, along with 25 more in seven states and two countries.
For more information on local tourism, visit visitjackson.com, visitmississippi.com or mstourism.com. For more information on the Hal's St. Paddy's Parade & Festival, visit halsstpaddysparade.com.
Writer James Bell is a Jackson Free Press intern who attends Millsaps College.