- 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.

Mr. Obama’s recent two-day visit to Panama City, Fla., where he ate local food and dipped in the water, will help some, Mr. Thompson said.

“The president and the first family - that’s the highest-profile visitors you can have to your state,” he said. “That was a strong statement. A high-profile person like that going swimming and having his family in there, that just reinforces the fact that there’s nothing to worry about.”

Government scientists say 4.1 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20.

Analysts still debate what became of the oil, much of which can’t be accounted for. That uncertainty has even those whose livelihoods depend on the Gulf issuing warnings about safety.

“They said oil’s gone. It’s not gone. It’s on the bottom,” Acy Cooper Jr., vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, told a congressional hearing Thursday. “You stir the bottom up and oil comes up. … Ninety percent is still there and it is going to come into our shores eventually. Somewhere, if not in Louisiana, somewheres else.”

Reports that emerged Thursday would seem to back up his account.

A team of scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts mapped an invisible 22-mile-long mist of oil with special instruments that look for the chemical signature of oil.

The plume consists of droplets too small for the eye to see, more than a half-mile down, said researchers who mapped it with high-tech sensors.

Scientists said the most troubling thing is the slow process of degrading, meaning it could be a long-lasting threat for marine life deep in the ocean.

But Mike Voisin, CEO of Motivatit Seafoods, told the same hearing that the seafood being shipped out of the Gulf is undergoing more testing than ever and is safe.

“We have 7,500 miles of shoreline in south Louisiana, if you go in and out every bayou and around every bay and lake. Only about 400 miles of those were oiled,” he said.

Those conflicting messages are unlikely to help the confusion about the amount of damage to the Gulf.

Mr. Hutchinson said the least he can ask of anyone considering a visit to the Gulf is to call the location and ask for advice.

“Before you make a decision not to come, make sure you’re informed. Check with the destination,” he said, adding that they’re looking for repeat customers so they’re likely to be straightforward. “The travel industry and the tourist industry is not about having people come one time and not again.”