NatGeo tourism website now active

Local businesses, events, attractions urged to participate

 

    A new National Geographic tourism website can literally open a window to allow anyone in the world to see what Avoyelles Parish has to offer when the are planning their next vacation.
    National Geographic’s “Mississippi River” site rolled out Sept. 14, giving communities from Minnesota to Louisiana the opportunity to consider visiting the sites, events and people who live along the banks of “The Father of Waters” -- one of the world’s greatest rivers.
    Terry Edwards Eastin, with the Mississippi River Connections Collaborative, was the guest speaker at the  Avoyelles Commission of Tourism (ACT) meeting on Sept. 13.
Eastin, the niece of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, said she felt like she was coming home even though she lives in northern Arkansas. She said her family roots are in Marksville and this area has always been special to her and her family.
    She said the collaborative includes many local, state and national government agencies . It also has numerous chambers of commerce, tourism bureaus and private organizations. All of those entities are working together to market the attractions, events and activities of the Mississippi River communities to tourists across the nation and worldwide.
    The National Geographic website -- found at www.mississippiriver.natgeo.com -- is one of the best tools to achieve that goal. Perhaps the best thing about the NatGeo site “is it is absolutely free.”
Eastin said individuals or tourism agencies can add information about local festivals, historic sites and events. Businesses that cater to tourists are encouraged to fill out a “nomination” form to highlight what they have to offer to visitors.
 
Nobody turned down
    “Nobody gets turned down,” Eastin said, adding that someone with National Geographic or the Collaborative will review the items submitted to ensure all needed information is included, edit any potentially incorrect or objectionable material and otherwise “tweak” the item before it “goes live” on the internet site.
    Eastin said the site is simple to use and is primarily following a series of prompts that helps the submitter include the information for potential tourists.
    She noted that this site, while focusing on the Mississippi River, will also be open to communities within a short drive of the river. By comparison, she said NatGeo’s “Gulf Coast” tourism website -- which includes a few Avoyelles Parish attractions -- is mostly aimed at communities near the Gulf beaches.
     Eastin said that most foreign visitors to the United States have three main destinations -- Orlando, Fla., for its Disney World and other theme parks, New York City and the West Coast.
Once they have achieved that major vacation destination, most want their next trips “to be authentic American experiences.”
    That means going into the heartland of the country to talk to Americans, eat what we eat, see local sites of interest, etc.
    She said there are 19 national parks and 365 other parks and recreation areas along the Mississippi River. There are numerous historical sites and other tourist attractions in the corridor.
    For every one of those attractions there are many local businesses that can provide services, supplies, lodging and entertainment to tourists visiting their community to enjoy those attractions.
 
“What is special?”
     Perhaps the best thing about participating in the NatGeo site “is that it will help you learn what is special about your place and then help you to tell others about it,” Eastin said.
    Often, residents of an area don’t realize how special the local attractions are “because they aren’t special to them. But to someone from somewhere else, they may be amazing.”
   Eastin said those submitting items for the website should not focus on traditional “tourist” activities. She said they should think broadly and include such items as fishing, hunting, outdoor recreation activities, etc.
    Eastin said an average tourist stays on vacation 5.9 days and spends $550 per person. A visitor using a National Geographic website to plan their trip stays 13.9 days and spends $1,400 per person. 
    A main reason for that is that they are able to see other activities they can incorporate into their vacation.
 
“Win-Win” situation
   The result is that the visitor has a more fulfilling vacation and the local communities benefit more from their visit. It is a classic “win-win” situation, she said.
   Eastin said large, national chains will not be included in the website. The site is for locally owned, small businesses.
   Once a business is on the website, the owner/operator will receive a certificate and window decal identifying it as approved by National Geographic. That is important because of the message it sends the visitor.
   “If there are two bed-and-breakfasts in town and one has a decal in the window identifying it as approved by National Geographic -- one of the highest regarded names in tourism -- and the other doesn’t, which one would you stay at,” Eastin asked. For that reason, all businesses who cater to tourists should submit their information to the site.
   She said the person submitting the information is responsible for maintaining that entry, including updating photographs, information on ownership changes, additional amenities, etc.
   “We can’t just plop it up there and let it sit,” Eastin said. “It needs to be kept current.”
   That means taking the item off if the business or attraction closes or the event ceases to be held, she added.
 
“A new avenue”
    ACT Director Wilbert Carmouche said the website “is a new avenue to bring awareness of what Avoyelles Parish has to offer to a new audience. 
   “We are not on the Mississippi River itself, so I am glad they extended the offer to participate to those parishes adjacent to the Mississippi River parishes.”
   Carmouche said one immediate advantage to the program was that it attracted a wide range of supporters from across the parish, creating one of Avoyelles’ largest pro-tourism partnership efforts.
   Carmouche said the fact that it costs nothing to participate means a business or community promoting a tourist attraction or event has nothing to lose.
   “One thing I like about the program is that a business has control over the content of its page on the website,” Carmouche continued. “They choose the photos, they write the text. That’s good because, after all, they can tell their story better than anyone else.” 

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