Special Reports

Oil spill puts damper on Mississippi tourism

BILOXI, Miss. — The beaches in South Mississippi remain open yet tourists are staying away from the charter boats, hotels and restaurants because of the negative national publicity since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

British Petroleum will spend $500,000 for an advertising campaign to help spread the word that the Gulf states are open for business, Mary Beth Wilkerson, director of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism, said Tuesday.

She and officials from other state agencies met at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum with a representative of BP and about 150 people who work in the tourism industry on the Coast.

The advertising campaign needs to start immediately, Coast tourism officials told Bruce Johnson, director of governmental affairs for BP in Ohio.

“If it’s not now, there will be some properties that can not hang on,” said Linda Hornsby, director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association. Occupancy at beach front hotels was down 50 percent last weekend, she said.

More than $500,000 is needed for an effective advertising campaign, said Beverly Martin, a member of the Harrison County Tourism Commission. When asked how much it will take, she said, “We’ll give you a figure and a plan.”

The commission scheduled a special meeting for 1:30 p.m. today at the commission’s board room, on the second floor of the Coast Convention Center. Chairman Ken Montana suggested the BP marketing department could use its massive resources to help and others recommended the local Big Three advertising agency create a campaign.

Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, chairman of the House Tourism Committee, said tourism is a $5.6 billion industry in Mississippi, with one-third of that revenue coming from the three Coast counties. She called for a hearing before the House and Senate tourism committees in July and again at the end of the year to determine the impact.

Bill Vrazel, owner of Vrazel’s Fine Food Restaurant in Gulfport, said the Coast was just “starting to see a sparkle” five years after Hurricane Katrina. Now there is a lot of uncertainty, he said. “It’s an impact that’s really out of anybody’s hands.”

At times the officials passed the microphone from one to another with nobody having an answer to the questions.

Irvin Jackson with the Department of Marine Resources said they just don’t know yet where the oil will go.

“Hopefully it’s going to stay away from our Coast,” he said. “Our seafood is good. Our resorts are open. We haven’t closed anything as of this time.”

Brandy Moore, captain of Biloxi Shrimping Trip, said her business is down 15 percent, “But we’re still out there.” She said they are posting pictures of the white beaches on the Internet. “We’re being proactive. We have to take a stand for ourselves.”

Bob Bennett, owner of Edgewater Inn on Beach Boulevard in Biloxi, was less positive. One of his guests came to the Coast, saying he wanted to put his toes in the white sand before it was too late.

Bruce Brackin with the Mississippi Department of Health said the Environmental Protection Agency has installed additional equipment at stations that monitor for national air quality standards. Roving teams are taking hundreds of samples looking for chemicals, “and really not seeing anything at all.”

If the oil gets closer, the teams will work 24 hours a day to detect any impact, he said. ”We should have a very good heads up.”