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turism&travel : Tar balls avoid Mississippi, but so do tourists

Tuesday 15 June 2010

—Few tar balls have hit the beaches here. Visitors aren't swimming away from patches of crude in the surf.

And the pictures of oil-drenched birds published world-wide were taken in neighboring Louisiana, not here.

But the crude spill in the Gulf of Mexico where the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20 is already inflicting economic damage on this community, frustrating the locals who see it as unfair that they have to bear the pain of an environmental disaster despite seeing little of its physical effect.

Many residents appear to be torn between wanting their Republican governor, Haley Barbour, to reflect their anxiety, and not sounding too alarmist, which might drive away more tourism.

"You've heard him on the news, saying, 'Everything's OK'—until it's not," said Robert Sweeting, 50, who works at the local seafood industry museum. "But I understand why. We need the tourists."

Mr. Barbour, who argues that coverage of the spill has hurt his state more than the spill itself, said he would meet Monday with President Barack Obama when the president visits Gulfport, Miss. on a swing through Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

For weeks after the disaster, Mr. Barbour cautioned that the spill might barely hit his state. He encouraged tourists to continue visiting to fuel the state's economy, and blamed news coverage of the spill for causing a tourism decline.

"Come on down here and play golf, enjoy the beach, catch a fish and pay a little sales tax while you're here," he said at a recent news conference in Biloxi.

Despite such exhortations, Biloxi's nine miles of beaches are nearly empty at a time when local residents say bathers and vendors typically swarm the sands. Restaurant traffic is down and some local seafood distributors say the amount they are selling has declined by a third or more since late April.

Even as this Gulf Coast city crowned its Shrimp Queen at a festival this month commemorating the opening of shrimp-fishing season, residents worried that she soon wouldn't have much of a local seafood industry to promote.

Seafood and tourism are tightly intertwined in a place that calls itself the "shrimp capital of the world," and where a bevy of casinos help draw hordes by serving plenty of the crustaceans and other marine protein. The oil spill is squeezing both industries.

Heavy cancellations and fewer reservations dragged down revenue at hotels along Mississippi's Gulf Coast last month. It was off about 50% from the average for May the last five years, according to the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association.

"The perception nationally is that we're covered with oil and closed, but our waters are still open," said Richard Forester, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, which represents Biloxi's Harrison County.

Although most casino-goers never set foot on the beach, he said, "even the casinos are starting to see an impact. Their forecast for July and August are very bleak."

The pressure on Biloxi's big industries is rippling out in more subtle ways too.

A local hospital is cutting some employees' hours because fewer tourists mean fewer patients entering the hospital's doors, said Rae Erickson, a 62-year-old clerk there who has seen her hours trimmed.

Larger shrimp-boat crews who typically buy thousands of dollars worth of food and other supplies for weeks-long fishing trips in May at Lee Market grocery store stayed away this year amid confusion about where they could fish, said owner Max Ly. That helped pushed down the supermarket's sales by about 45% compared with May last year, he said.

The Biloxi Shrimp Festival and Blessing of the Fleet, which residents say normally bustles with people from around the region, even had spotty attendance.

White donation boxes dotted the grounds, with signs that said, "S.O.S. Save our shrimpers."

Even if oil doesn't wash ashore in great quantity, the effects of the spill will "be a catastrophe of epic proportions for the city and the state," said Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway. About half the city's annual revenue is tied to tourism.

In an interview earlier this month, Mr. Barbour said BP PLC, which leased the well now spewing in the Gulf, has "tried to do everything that we've asked them to do." However, he faulted the oil company for not moving fast enough to deploy privately owned boats in Mississippi to defend the coast against the spill.

Within two weeks of the spill, the Mississippi government presented BP with a plan to use privately owned boats in the state to help keep the oil at bay, Mr. Barbour said. But as of the end of May, BP had mobilized only four privately owned boats south of Mississippi's barrier islands, the governor said.

Then "one minor intrusion of some emulsified oil" washed ashore on Petit Bois Island, a barrier island off Mississippi, Mr. Barbour said.

"I think they learned their lesson when this emulsified glop hit Petit Bois—that they were not putting nearly enough vessels to execute their plan as we envisioned it."

By June 6, Mr. Barbour said, between 250 and 300 privately owned boats were fighting the spill off the Mississippi Coast, meaning that BP's response "has gotten considerably better."

Autor: eTurboNews