Special Reports

THE GULF OIL SPILL: Will president go for a swim during visit?

When the first lady visited Florida’s Gulf Coast, she got her feet wet. Will the president dive in?

Much may ride on President Barack Obama’s fondness for beaches and body surfing as he readies for next month’s family vacation in the Sunshine State. The White House hasn’t released an itinerary, but media reports have him and his family visiting somewhere on the Florida’s Gulf Coast.

For a tourism industry spending millions to convince vacationers that the Gulf remains a safe a place to swim, footage of Obama plunging into the surf would provide an instant publicity coup after a summer of grueling media coverage of soiled beaches.

“He’s got to get in the water,” said Mark Bellinger, director of the Emerald Coast tourism bureau, which promotes Destin and nearby areas. “I’d be ecstatic.”

For a president who spent much of his youth in Hawaii and still likes to ride the waves there on vacation, a snub of the Gulf Coast surf would surely be noted. He was famously photographed in swim trunks during the 2008 campaign, and the lack of a similar image could mean one more media setback for the Gulf Coast.

“It would be kind of: ‘Hmmmm. He didn’t get in the water?’ ” said Dale Brill, who left his job as Florida’s tourism director to run the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “I’ll bet you he goes swimming.”

So far the first couple has only made working trips to the Gulf Coast, separately touring Florida beaches and meeting with local dignitaries and business executives. The closest either President Obama or wife Michelle got to swimming was during her visit to Panama City Beach two weeks ago, when she shed her shoes and walked barefoot in the Gulf surf.

“The power of those images were so strong,” said Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Beach tourism bureau.

Added Chris Thompson, director of state tourism bureau Visit Florida: “If the president goes swimming, I think it would be awesome.”

The White House announced the Gulf Coast family trip after critics questioned why the Obamas were vacationing in Maine this summer while urging Americans to visit the Gulf.

Media reports have the president and his family (presumably with both daughters, though Malia, 12, is currently at camp) arriving Saturday, Aug. 14, for a “weekend vacation.”

Bellinger said he has been told the trip will last through Sunday night, but that the White House might add a third day to the getaway. Like other tourism agencies, the Emerald Coast has been working with Washington contacts to lure the First Family their way.

They insist only false perception would deter the Obamas from taking a swim, particularly since oil sightings have been rare since the undersea BP well was capped two weeks ago.

“We’re not seeing much oil on any Florida beaches at all these days,” said Stephen Leatherman, a Florida International University professor who releases an annual list of the world’s best beaches. “I don’t think President Obama or his family will have any problems.”

But swimming remains a touchy, contentious subject along the Gulf Coast, with worries that tourism promotion is trumping concerns over public health — particularly with the heavy use of chemical fuel dispersants in combating the underwater spill.

“Most of the locals I know will not swim, because we are concerned about what they are putting in the water,” said Dana Powell, manager of the Paradise Inn in Pensacola Beach. “The tourists don’t seem to care.”

State health advisories remain for some of the most popular beaches on the coast, including all the Gulf Coast along Pensacola Beach and parts of Okaloosa County near Destin. Known as “Oil Impact Notices,” they warn beachgoers to “avoid wading, swimming or entering the water.”

But state officials have taken a less stringent approach in advising the public, noting that brief contact with oil rarely causes health issues. In Escambia County, home to Pensacola Beach, health director Dr. John Lanza said people should avoid beaches only if they see or smell oil — and that includes the commander in chief.

“I would tell him the same thing I tell everyone else,” Lanza said. “If you don’t smell it, see it or feel it, go into the water — if that’s what you want to do.”