Elvis fans give boost to Mississippi economy

Published 3:41 pm Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Even from beyond the grave, Elvis Presley still generates big bucks for the tourist trade in his native Mississippi.

Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of his death at age 42. Thousands of pilgrims from around the globe are converging on western Tennessee and northern Mississippi to eat, drink and breathe all things Elvis.

Many are making the 110-mile trek from Memphis, Tenn., where the King of Rock ’n’ Roll enjoyed his fame and gaudy fortune in a white-columned estate called Graceland, to Tupelo, the northeast Mississippi city where Elvis and a stillborn twin, Jesse, came into the world on Jan. 8, 1935, in a tiny shotgun shack built by their father.

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Fans from Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, and even from exotic locales like Kansas, are spending their hard-earned money for T-shirts, coffee mugs, salt and pepper shakers, refrigerator magnets and other trinkets.

They’re also filling hotel rooms as far away as northwest Mississippi’s casino row in Tunica and are spending money on meals, rental cars and gasoline, giving a significant, although difficult to quantify, boost to the area’s economy.

Dick Guyton is executive director of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation, which operates the birthplace, museum, gift shop, park and memorial chapel in Tupelo. He estimated that fans will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars there and at area hotels and stores this week, which — even at the birthplace — is the busiest of the year for Elvis tourism.

The more lucrative earnings are in Memphis. Last year, Graceland took in $27 million in revenue, and the overall Elvis business brings in more than $40 million a year for CKX Inc., the New York-based company that controls most Elvis enterprises.

About 3,000 people went to Tupelo this past Saturday for an annual Fan Appreciation Day, and Guyton predicted the visitor totals could reach 5,000 by Friday.

On Tuesday, the birthplace was expecting busloads of 300 fans from France, 100 from England and about 45 from Kansas. On Thursday, a group of 250 Belgians is scheduled to be there.

“We do see a lot of men with long black hair and sideburns,” Guyton said.

Lillian Dunk, a 65-year-old homemaker from Birmingham, England, said she and her financial-broker husband, Bernard Dunk, have traveled to Tupelo every year since 1997 to feed her Elvis addiction.

“I’m just absolutely mad about Mr. Presley,” said Lillian Dunk, who uses her favorite Elvis tune, the inspirational “If I Can Dream,” as her cell phone ring tone.

“I get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t come every year,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday from the birthplace. “I just absolutely love the place. I adore it. I just feel so relaxed here.”

Lillian Dunk said she and her husband are traveling with her sister and sister’s husband for the 10-day trip. They’re staying at a casino hotel in Tunica, about 20 miles south of Memphis. And, she wasn’t shy in saying she and her husband were planning to spend about 4,000 British pounds — roughly $8,000 — after air fare.

Steve Martin is spokesman for the tourism division of the Mississippi Development Authority, the state economic agency. He said the agency doesn’t specifically track spending for Elvis tourism. He said for all tourists, the state figures two people traveling for three days will spend roughly $750.

Plus, he said Elvis fans might travel through the Mississippi Delta to visit other significant musical sites.

“We would have a crossover with the Elvis fans in terms of blues music,” Martin said. “If they’re that close to the birthplace of the blues, they might go other places, too.”