LIVINGSTON -- The first few years after the Livingston Parish stretch of Interstate 12 opened in 1972 gave a different impression of the area. In those days, the exit off the expressway meant little more than a return home for residents or a stop for gasoline and maybe a burger.
Fast forward to 2018, and the stop becomes a gateway for tourists. In fact, the direction over the past five years signifies the lures for tourism are no longer a well-kept secret.
“It’s a blessing to be nestled between Baton Rouge, Hammond and New Orleans,” said Eric Edwards, director of the Livingston Parish Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Tourism’s contribution to the parish and state plays a vital role to economy, according to the numbers.
In the 2017 figures culled by the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, the Pelican State hosted 47.1 million domestic and international visitors who spent $17.5 billion -- a 4 percent increase in spending.
The influx funnels $1.8 billion in total state and local tax revenues generated by tourism activities in Louisiana, resulting in a 4.5 percent increase per year.
The same study shows that Livingston Parish gets a generous share of the gravy.
Total spending in 2017 -- hotels, motels, campgrounds, dining -- amounted to $107.62 million. Earnings from tourist-related activities - including shopping, RV parks and festivals - in Livingston Parish total $40.31 million.
The parish benefits from a 3 percent hotel/motel occupancy tax, which it could boost one more penny without another vote, something Edwards has considered.
The tax in Livingston Parish is 1 percent less than Ascension and 2 percent lower than East and West Baton Rouge parishes. It’s a mere fraction of the 14 percent occupancy tax levied in Orleans Parish.
“Tourism in this parish has become full-fledged industry, one that keeps growing and growing -- and it’s a force to be reckoned with,” Edwards said. “It all boils down to location.”
Bass Pro Outdoor World, the Hungarian Settlement, Tickfaw State Park and waterways in the southern portion of the parish have played a considerable role in the lure to the area.
But an attraction which blossomed in the past 25 years has also commanded a presence.
The Denham Springs Antique District, which operates at full capacity, has enjoyed a strong following over the years. A recent designation only promises to boost it further.
The area’s recognition last month on the National Register of Historic Places brought added prestige, not to mention tax incentives and credits, and an additional boost to its economic activity.
“It’s not only big for us, but big for economic development for the parish,” said Donna Jennings, director of the Denham Springs Main Street Program. “People plan their vacations around going to areas of historic interest, and when you have an entire district on the register, you have a symbol of pride.”
Jennings, who has served 15 years as Main Street director for the city, said variety is the spice of life of the Denham Springs program.
“It’s very well rounded -- business owners, churches, the Arts Council,” she said. “It’s not just one thing or one person.”
The close proximity to Interstate 12 has played a role in the success of the Antique District, hotels and motels, campgrounds and other attractions in the area.
It may have also played a role in a faster recovery for the parish tourism industry after the flood, for attractions ranging from the Antique District to Tickfaw State Park, both of which sustained severe damage in the August 2016 flood.
The geographic location may have also created the pathway for the state park to reopen after the flood, particularly when the state dealt some parks the budget axes as a way to dig out of a $300 million shortfall in 2017.
“Needless to say, we were very lucky after the flood,” Edwards said. “Just like downturns and recessions, the flood has had a minimal effect on tourism.”
Dining has played another role, particularly as the choices become more diverse in the parish.
“There’s nothing wrong with comfort food, but we were once known for family restaurants in tighter social networks,” Edwards said, “but we’re not just about buffets or fast food any more, and that has helped us on the regional and national end.”
The regional and national exposure comes into play through promotion, which has also gone through a shift in direction in recent years. Gone are the days of the tourism centers where families stopped for a restroom break, a stretch and grabbed a couple of brochures along the way.
Now, mobile devices and social media provide much of the same visibility.
“It’s had an unbelievable impact, and the way it’s impacted us is that if someone likes your post, you can like the entire page and that builds on the amount of tourists who visit your attractions,” Jennings said.
It all plays a role in the selection of attractions across the parish, which lends itself to growth, Edwards said.
He sees more hotels and more attractions on the horizon as the tourism industry continues its growth spurt in Livingston Parish and across the region.
“You’ll see more hotels, and that will increase our budget and allow us to increase the promotion, which in turn builds this industry,” Edwards said. “People see that we’re no longer just a sleepy bedroom community between Hammond, New Orleans and Baton Rouge.”