By Mary Elizabeth High
Though Mississippi is a beautiful state with rich culture and heritage, it is riddled with controversy and haunted by a violent past. It seems that as soon as residents of the state become proud of their home, another unfortunate event surfaces or resurfaces to make us ashamed once again of this beautiful place we call home.
The fact that many Mississippians are ashamed of the state is problematic because it is difficult to persuade others to visit a place we are not even sure we would visit. How can we sell the beauty of the state when we aren’t sure it exists?
As a conservative Southern State, will we be able to move past the scorn of a highly progressive and accusatory nation and influence others to experience the beauty of Mississippi?
My personal experience with Mississippi has been nothing short of incredible. I applied to Ole Miss as a senior in high school, wanting a backup plan in case I was not accepted into my first choice school.
Truthfully, I had no plans at all to even set foot on the Ole Miss campus unless every other plan completely unraveled. However, once I had already paid a deposit at another school and selected a roommate, my father decided we should come tour Ole Miss.
He claimed it was “just to have a fun weekend” away from the all girls boarding school I was attending, but he later admitted he had a feeling that Mississippi would be a much better fit for me.
As it turns out, he was absolutely right. My Ole Miss story began the same way many others do: “I drove onto campus, and right away I just knew.” Before I even got out of the car, Ole Miss felt like I was finally home.
I can’t really put my finger on exactly what it was that made me so sure that Ole Miss was home, but once I knew, I couldn’t be convinced otherwise. Upon meeting people around campus, I was even more convinced.
The students and faculty were so warm, so welcoming. The buildings were incredible. The Grove, the magnolia trees, the Walk of Champions… everything about this place amazed me, just as everything about Mississippi continues to amaze me.
In our current political climate, in which perception is reality and outrage culture is king, it is difficult to persuade people to come to Mississippi who have not already been. With our current portrayal in the media, and citizens of other states looking for someone to blame for current national tensions, it is easy to make scapegoats out of the Deep Southern States that once had slaves.
Because of Mississippi’s current portrayal in the media, a campaign to encourage tourism in the state will not look like an advertisement to visit a beautiful, culturally-rich state, it will look more like a desperate cry: Why visit a backwards, racist, bigoted, XYZ-phobic, Deep Southern State?
However, this representation of the Deep South is highly inaccurate and unfair. Yes, some Mississippians’ ancestors may have owned slaves, and yes, it is absolutely deplorable the way they were treated, but the past happened. We cannot change it. We can simply move forward, which is what Mississippi is trying to do, but it is not being allowed.
It seems that for every good thing done in this state, someone brings up “Yes, but slavery” as an argument to negate what the state tries to do, and when the state’s governing bodies pass a conservative policy into law, people look at us and think: “Oh yes, Mississippi, still stuck in the past as if it’s still 1835. What an embarrassment. How disgusting.”
Given this pattern of perception, it will be difficult to “sell” the state that, to the rest of America, is akin to the embarrassing drunk and inappropriate uncle at the Thanksgiving table. You see him once a year because you have to, and whenever he does something inappropriate, you nod and smile until you can talk about how deplorable his behavior is in the car on the way home.
So the question is: Should the state create a tourism industry through apology for its past, or should the state focus on other aspects of its culture in order to move on from its past? This is a difficult question to answer, because an apology will be perceived as insincere (perception is reality), but an attempt to move on from the past will be perceived as a cover-up. So what is there to do?
Educate people. Build an integrated tourism market that focuses heavily on the culture (i.e. the Mississippi Blues Trail), but also educates about slavery and how it influenced the growth of said culture. The campaign itself should focus on actually drawing tourists to the state.
It should include video advertisements run on television channels in multiple states showcasing the state’s natural beauty, and print advertisements run in publications, such as Garden and Gun, Our State Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and more.
The campaign would also feature a website that could be accessed through a link shown on the video advertisements or a QR code at the bottom of the print advertisements.
The type of audience Mississippi draws will not be millennials just yet. Before we target millennial tourists, the state will need to make major political changes and develop an established tourism market.
For now, Mississippi will attract members of Generation X, who enjoy the outdoors, blues, or both. Advertising will focus majorly on the beautiful outdoor spaces in Mississippi, the Southern comfort food, the Blues, the art, and the famous hospitality exhibited by most Southern states.
While the arts and culture would be the main drawing factor to actually attract tourism, the real focal point would be the idea of Southern hospitality. Since Mississippi is already known as the Hospitality State, it is important that we really play on and showcase the positive things Mississippi is already known for.
We would include a diverse range of local faces in all of the marketing materials for the campaign in order to “put a face to the name.” However, it doesn’t stop there. This idea would also involve getting locals involved with the tourism market in a deeper sense than simply working at the visitor’s center or giving directions to a lost tourist.
We want locals to actually engage with tourists on a meaningful level and vice versa to showcase the sense of welcome and warmth that most native Mississippians exude.
The campaign will be titled: Mississippi: It Feels Like Coming Home.
Overall, my campaign idea was well-received by those I shared it with. Most of these people were North Carolinians, who said they would visit Mississippi if they felt the tourism industry was being honest about the past, while not focusing completely on it.
Tourism is an incredibly important industry in many states. In some cases, it brings in a large portion of revenue for certain states, and a blossoming tourism industry in Mississippi could bring much-needed economic stimulation to the state.
In order to properly execute this campaign, Mississippians need to be better educated on the state’s history and need to be prepared to accept and educate tourists from other states. However, ultimately, this would not be a statewide campaign, but a national campaign.
Drawing in tourists from other states will be both economically beneficial to the state and crucial in educating people about the state and its people in order to change stereotypes.