Despite gusher, Gulf Coast open for business

Leann Pitre, left, speaks to her friend Rachel Hebert, center,  and Hebert's son, Damien Theriot, 6,on the beach along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Gulfport. Tourism officials from Louisiana to Florida — and their customers — are anxiously watching to see where else the slick could come ashore.  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Leann Pitre, left, speaks to her friend Rachel Hebert, center, and Hebert

For Laura Allen, the waiting is the hardest part.
An employee at Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield, Allen booked a condo on the Alabama Gulf Coast months ago, well before the Deepwater Horizon explosion that is still spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As her refund deadline approached, she agonized over whether or not to cancel her reservation. In the end, she decided to take the chance and go.
“We’re booked for the last week of May,” Allen said. “We may end up just laying by the pool for a week. But, we’re going.”
Right now, Allen’s decision seems to be the norm on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau reports not a single summer event on the Mississippi Gulf Coast has scratched. Executive director Richard Forester said he has heard of some charter boat and beachside property cancellations, but nothing significant and no layoffs.
“We’re open for business down here,” Forester said.
Still, the uncertainty reigns, making answers to inquiries difficult.
“I tell them if they’re planning on coming this week, come on,” he said. “If they’re planning on coming in a couple of weeks, they should call back. We want to be positive, but we also have to be honest.”
Media reports on the oil spill have distorted the truth, Forester said. People think oil has already hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast, he said, when the fact is that the region has not even received a sheen from the massive oil flow that is dumping 5,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf daily.
Tourism organizations, including the Tourism Division of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), are pushing the Coast’s non-beach attractions. Forester said reports of layoffs in Florida that began immediately after the rig explosion illustrates the difference between the two state’s markets.
“(Beaches) are all they have,” he said. “People come to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for more than beaches.
“There is no oil on the casino floors. There is no oil on our golf courses. There is no oil in our museums or restaurants. And, for the record, our beaches are just fine.”
For all of his optimism, Forester admitted high concern for the seafood industry and the long-term impact it could have on the industry that is the foundation for Coast tourism. To say Mike Cashion is concerned is understatement. He calls the situation “topsy-turvy.”
Executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, Cashion said the potential lack of seafood could have a crippling effect on his members. And, the oil is still flowing.
“Is this going to be a two-week event or a three-month event? We just don’t know,” Cashion said.
To meet the needs of the consuming public, it was announced in late April that major restaurant food suppliers had purchased a 30-day supply of domestic shrimp. They also had ample supplies of other domestic seafood products.
Scott Weinberg, president of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association and owner of the Blow Fly Inn in Gulfport, said he and his peers are dealing with the uncertainties while remaining committed to the local seafood industry.
“It is difficult to tell just how long this disaster will impact the Coast, but customers should rest assured that local restaurants will continue to do business and support our local seafood producers,” Weinberg said in a statement. “We have weathered a lot of storms, and we will weather this one, as well. Our restaurateurs are reflective of our communities along the Coast – we are resilient and we will find a way to overcome this event.”
In an effort to promote an oil-free Mississippi – and that locally-caught seafood is still safe for consumption – the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association are petitioning BP, the Deepwater Horizon’s operator, for assistance. Cashion said he feels the campaign, which will include brochures and other materials, will launch soon.
The health of the Coast’s tourism industry is critical to the entire state. The three coastal counties alone bring in approximately $1.6 billion in tourism dollars annually. That is more than a third of the state’s total take from tourism.
“The Mississippi Gulf Coast is one of our state’s greatest treasures. We are concerned about the short- and long term-impacts this spill will have on the businesses and individuals that make their living from the sea and on our tourism and hospitality industries,” said Gray Swoope, executive director of MDA. “Unfortunately, at this time, it is irresponsible speculation and inaccurate reports that are having a negative impact on Mississippi Coast businesses that are still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina and the global recession.
“As Gov. (Haley) Barbour has said, we will hope for the best but prepare for the worst, and we are taking preventative action to protect our beaches and fisheries; however, the facts are that our beaches are open, our restaurants and hotels are open, our waterways are unrestricted and fishing charters are operating.”

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