- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2010

White sandy beaches free of oil have proved to be no match for the endless television news footage of tar balls collecting after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the pleas for billions of dollars of help from local businesses complaining of ruin, and the regular bashing of BP PLC coming from Capitol Hill.

Now, with the oil well capped, tourism officials are hoping they’ve turned a corner - though they say there can never be enough positive press coverage to undo the worst-case scenarios that were bandied about during the months-long barrage of bad news.

“The reporting of the event was as expensive to the businesses on the Gulf Coast as the actual event was. I think the reporting generated much of the hysteria,” said Jim Hutchinson, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Office of Tourism. “Much of the impact was as a result of the reporting of what may happen, as opposed to what really happened.”

But the damage was done, and the data back up just how deep it goes.

In June, Mr. Hutchinson’s office sponsored a survey that found that nationally and regionally, vacationers decided not to come to Louisiana after the spill. Complicating matters, the survey found that 38 percent thought the press was downplaying the severity of the spill and its impact, while just 23 percent said they thought the coverage was exaggerated.

Those polled said they expected the effects to be felt along the coast for years. The oil-slick imagery translated into cancellations at hotels and sport-fishing charters, left beaches barren and caused a drop in seafood restaurants’ business all along the coast as would-be customers stayed home.

On a recent hot, sunny and humid August afternoon the white beaches of Gulfport and Biloxi in Mississippi were empty, and unused personal watercraft bobbed on their tethers several dozen yards off the shore.

“The media was the cause of my problem, and the media is the cure,” said Bob Bennett, who owns the Edgewater Inn in Biloxi with his wife, Mary Alice.

His situation is typical of Mississippi coast hotel operators who reopened after Katrina and who were expecting this to be the year they finally broke free of that storm’s lingering pall.

In particular, 40 percent of their pre-Katrina competition never rebuilt, and customers were expected to return to the white sands, the casinos and the golf courses.

“This was going to be a breakout year, a recovery year. All of a sudden, the oil hits, the phone starts ringing - cancellations,” Mr. Bennett said.

He is luckier than most others. His wife was one of the local business owners who met with President Obama during a June visit to the area. When CNN interviewed her, he said, it was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in free advertising.

Still, the summer months determine whether many hotels and restaurants along the Gulf break even or turn a profit every year, and this summer has been all but lost for some, even though tourism officials say the effects of the spill were far less drastic than the worst-case scenarios reported on television.

Though some advisories were posted, Florida never had a beach closed throughout the entire spill, said Chris Thompson, president and chief executive officer of Visit Florida.

He said in some ways the strength of Florida’s brand as a beach tourism destination may make it harder to recover than other areas, such as Biloxi and Gulfport, which are known for land-based activities such as gambling and golf, as much as for the Gulf.

Story Continues →