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Tourism leaders from across Mississippi in Biloxi attending Governor's Conference on Tourism

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BILOXI, Mississippi — Tourism leaders from across the state are in Biloxi this week and will be joined by Gov. Phil Bryant, who is expected to address a request for an additional $5 million to market Mississippi as a destination.

Bryant will close the Governor's Conference on Tourism at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino by presenting travel awards for the best tourism attractions and promotions.

Money and marketing are the main themes of the conference.

"Tourism is a huge asset to our state. People don't realize that we are the fourth largest industry in the state. For every dollar we use to advertise and market Mississippi we get $6 back in the general fund," said Rochelle Hicks, executive director of the Mississippi Tourism Association.

Mississippi's tourism budget is among the lowest of any state in the country and while there are goals for increasing tourism, "The plan starts with more funding," said Malcolm White, executive director of Mississippi Development Authority's Tourism Division.

"This is a spend-money-to-make-money business," he said.

Competing states and destinations have much larger budgets, and he said, "When everyone else is shouting, we're whispering."

The key is to use new technology to draw more visitors while continuing to cater to those already coming to the state, White said.

Neighboring destinations also are recovering their tourism revenues faster than Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Gulf oil spill in 2010.

Renee Areng, director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, said South Mississippi is moving in the right direction. Tourism jobs are on the increase, she said, and the inventory of hotel rooms is now at 14,000, or 79 percent of the 17,000 pre-Katrina level.

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