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New Mississippi River website is expected to boost tourism

The new National Geographic map guide to the Mississippi River.

Local community leaders say a new website devoted to the Mississippi River will boost tourism up and down the river.

They gathered Wednesday at the National Great Rivers Museum in Alton to celebrate the launch of the Mississippi River Geotourism MapGuide, a website that highlights river towns, attractions and businesses. The project, which took more than two years to complete, is a partnership between National Geographic Maps, the National Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and regional organizations like the Mississippi River Connections Collaborative and the Meeting of the Rivers Foundation.

The website bills itself as “a travel guide to the places most respected and recommended by locals.”

People who live and work in river communities nominated hundreds of historic landmarks, entertainment attractions, hotels and eateries along the river that flows through 10 states from Minnesota to Louisiana.

"We are telling the story of what's so special about the people, places and businesses along the river," said Kimberly Rea, recreation manager for the rivers projects office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She helped coordinate the project.

Decals will be displayed by businesses and sites included in the guide.

“This kind of attention helps people to see the river as so much more than something they cross on a bridge,’’ Rea said.

Launch celebrations are being held in various cities along the river, including Natchez, Miss., and the Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa.

Rea said that promoting the importance of the river and tourism is vital to maintaining the vibrancy of river towns — and of the river itself. It’s also important to think of the Mississippi as one river for tourism and conservation, rather than dividing it into sections by region. She expects the website will help promote the river to international travelers, as well.

“It’s going to make it more significant to the people in the United States, as well as around the world,’’ Rea said. “The river needs to remain vibrant. People in the United States and sometimes right along the river take it for granted.”

National Geographic develops the websites to promote geotourism around the world. Similar “mapguides” already exist for international destinations and U.S. destinations, ranging from Yellowstone National Park to the Delaware River. The magazine defines geotourism as tourism that sustains or enhances the distinctive geographical character of a place by focusing on its environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture and well-being of its residents.

Among the more well-known local entries to the guide are the Edward “Ted” and Pat Jones Confluence Point State Park, the Gateway Arch and Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park, home of the Gateway Geyser. The site also includes a section of trip plans to help tourists find their way to multiple sites. For example, there’s a trip to see historic buildings in Ste. Genevieve, the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and St. Louis landmarks.

Alton Mayor Brant Walker said the website will be important to towns up and down the river.  Tourism in his community brings in about $100 million a year, which has helped to offset the loss of manufacturing in recent years.

“Alton is trying to find other ways — like many other cities — in how do we bring revenue in. We are very blessed to be on this beautiful river,’’ he said.

The website is free to users and historical sites and businesses pay nothing to be included. The cost of developing the website was paid for by organizations like the Mississippi River Connections Collaborative and the Delta Regional Authority.

The website is still accepting nominations for sites to be included, and content will be continually updated, Rea said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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