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Can tourism, drilling coexist on the Coast?

Since the casinos arrived in the 1990s, tourism on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast has driven that region’s economy.

Data compiled by the Mississippi Tourism Association show that the two coastal counties that house casinos — Hancock and Harrison — bring in an average of nearly $1 billion in annual revenue generated by tourists. Those same numbers show that 15% of Harrison County’s workforce earns a paycheck from some part of the tourism industry.

That’s a major economic impact. And tourism officials on the Coast hope this year’s vacation season packs an even bigger punch, with folks around Mississippi shortening their destinations because of fuel prices.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau has partnered with that area’s lodging association to offer a $50 gas voucher to anyone who books a room at a hotel or resort.

The promotion started June 15. By June 24, 80 vouchers had been given out, says MGCCVB executive director Richard Forester.

“The response has been incredible,” he says. “A little scary, actually. We recognized early on (that fuel prices would be an issue this summer) and went into partnership with the lodging association. We’re targeting the areas east and west of us as far as all the way up to Birmingham. We’re saturating the market promoting this thing.”

Market saturation is something of which consumers could use more when it comes to the supply and demand scale of the oil industry. That was the theme President Bush hammered recently when he called on Congress to open up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and America’s coastal regions to increased oil drilling.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to the vast majority of offshore drilling rigs in the United States. In a news release, Gov. Haley Barbour touted the potential Mississippi has to be a major player in energy exploration and production.

“My policy as governor has been to recognize the need for more domestically produced energy because Mississippi is a great source,” Barbour says.

Several projects around the state propose to lessen the energy burden. Entergy Mississippi pushed for and got legislation this past session that will allow the company to pay as-you-go for construction of a nuclear power plant at Grand Gulf in Port Gibson. Mississippi Power will benefit from the same law when it starts work on its coal gasification plant in Kemper County.

Chevron officials announced in March that the refinery in Pascagoula would be expanded to take on new technology that converts ultra-heavy oil into clean burning fuel, increasing yields of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from heavy and ultra-heavy crude oils and could be used to increase and upgrade production of heavy oil resources.

“Given the increasing role of heavy oil in meeting the world’s growing energy demand and our significant heavy oil resources, this technology could provide a unique pathway to increase supplies of clean-burning fuels for the marketplace,” says Mike Wirth, Chevron executive vice president for global downstream.

Securing water space, building rigs and hauling them out to sea is a process that takes years. Even then, there is no guarantee the new rigs will strike oil beneath the water’s surface. Given that, Forester says estimating the impact the expansion of oil exploration on the Mississippi Coast would have on tourism would be blind speculation. There is just no way to tell, Forester says, if additional rigs in the Gulf and new refineries inland will help or harm his industry.

“But we have to make decisions,” Forester says. “And we have to be prepared to live with those decisions and their consequences, whether those consequences be intended or unintended.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .


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