Elvis Presley's spirit keeps music lovers flocking to Memphis, writes Adrian Sainz.

When Graceland opened to the public three decades ago, nobody knew if it would be a success. More than 18 million visitors later, the house where Elvis Presley once lived is a money-making business that's helped transform the city of Memphis into a top destination for music lovers.

But Presley's ex-wife says it's the spirit of Elvis that keeps the crowds coming.

"Every time I go in there, I feel like Elvis is going to come down the stairs any minute," says Priscilla Presley.

Presley died on August 16, 1977. By the early 1980s, Graceland had become a burden on his estate, which faced high estate and inheritance taxes.


Accountants and bankers wanted to sell the home, but Priscilla Presley thought that opening the house to tourists could solve the financial problems while keeping Elvis' legacy alive.

She secured a US$500,000 investment and visited other tourist attractions - Hearst Castle, Will Rogers' home, even Disney World - for inspiration.

Graceland opened for tours on June 7, 1982.

"We had no idea whether 30 people were coming, or 300, or 3000 that first day. Fortunately, it was the latter," said Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises.

They sold out all 3024 tickets on the first day and never looked back.

Graceland's success led to a worldwide merchandising and licensing business that keeps Elvis' legend strong while generating US$32 million a year in revenue. And the flow of tourists has remained steady, with an average of 500,000 annual visitors to the mansion and exhibit area across the street, according to Soden.

Visitors peak in August during the annual commemoration of Elvis' death, which includes a candlelight vigil.

Graceland's popularity has also helped turn Memphis into a major music destination.

When Presley died, Beale Street in downtown Memphis, which was known for the blues, was in disrepair, but today it's a bustling attraction, Sun Studios, where music producer Sam Phillips worked with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others, opened as a tourist attraction in 1985.

The studio for Stax Records, known for Otis Redding and others, has been reborn as a slick multimedia museum of the label's distinctive Memphis soul sound. And Memphis in May, a month-long event that includes a music festival and barbecue contest at a park along the Mississippi River, now attracts tens of thousands.

"It's been incredible to see that the legacy of Elvis is still going strong," says Priscilla.

"We wouldn't have imagined that when it was opened in 1982. Elvis is as popular now as he was then, if not even more."

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles and San Francisco, from where there are connecting flights to Memphis International Airport.

Further information: See graceland.com and DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Memphis.

- AP