SID SALTER: Coast walks a tightrope between tourism and oil spill fears

By Sid Salter

Mississippi state officials are walking a difficult tightrope between trying to honestly deal with both the realities and the fears of the Deepwater Horizon oil well accident in the Gulf and immediate concerns for salvaging the current tourist and convention season for Coast residents whose livelihoods depend upon it.
However well intentioned his remarks, Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant was the first official to fall off that tightrope last week.
During a May 12 speech at the Coastal Development Strategies Conference at the Mississippi Coast Convention Center, Bryant said told a story about an encounter with a Coast resident earlier in the week who told him he could smell “gasoline” when he walked outside his home.
“Well, he might want to check his lawnmower,” Bryant said at the event. “That is not gasoline coming out of the Gulf.”
If it were, “we wouldn’t need refineries,” Bryant said. “If anybody says ‘Oh I can smell it,’ … no you can’t.”
The remarks – which Bryant later sought to clarify as remarks made to protect Gulf Coast tourism from unreasonable fears – brought a torrent of criticism of Bryant in the Gulf Coast media and accusations of insensitivity from the Mississippi Democratic Party.
In hindsight, Bryant’s “lawnmower” anecdote might better have been left in his speech writer’s laptop.
But for Gulf Coast residents from Louisiana to Florida, the economic reality is that some of the current tourism season can be saved or salvaged unless fears of the oil spill – fears of odor, no seafood, no opportunities for recreation on fouled beaches and no basic “fun in the sun” – scuttle short-term vacation and convention plans.
Political leaders across the Gulf Coast region have struggled with walking the tourism tightrope over the Gulf oil spill
“Come on down here and play golf, enjoy the beach, catch a fish and pay a little sales tax while you’re here,” Gov. Haley Barbour said in Biloxi the same day Bryant stumbled.
Alabama’s Gov. Bob Riley echoed those comments May 17: “Our beaches remain as open and beautiful today as they were a month ago.”
State Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, said Monday that there “was no reason at this time for anyone not to come to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for a family vacation or convention.”
The bottom line is that fears fueled by cable TV news and the 24-hour news cycle are costing Mississippians part of their tourism livelihoods. For most of the Gulf Coast, the beaches are open and clean, you can still safely consume a dozen oysters on the half-shell and the shrimp are big and plentiful.
You can swim take a kid to the beach and have a great time. All those things – the food, the fun, the sun, and the allure of the beach – are still there to enjoy. At least it is for now.
I spent last weekend in Gulf Shores and drove down with trepidation of what we’d find. What we found was the same good times we had last year at Biloxi, at Fort Morgan and at Gulf Shores at weddings, family trips and conventions.
Bryant might have said it differently and less abrasively to Gulf Coast residents, but the message was on target – it’s insane to write off this year’s tourist season on the Gulf Coast when the oil hasn’t yet reached the shorelines.
The Gulf Coast is facing a disaster – perhaps an historic ecological catastrophe – and so many Mississippians have already lost their livelihoods to it. But letting unfounded fears rob the wages of those who make their livings in tourism one day early only compounds that disaster for far too many Mississippians.
Sid Salter is Perspective editor for The Clarion-Ledger and a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.