Tourism hit hard because of oil leak

JACKSON – The Mississippi Gulf Coast tourism industry was just beginning to recover from recent national economic woes when it was hit hard by the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, a special House Committee was told Tuesday.
That oil spill, costing Mississippi revenue, could impact schools and other state services as far away from the Gulf Coast as Tupelo and Corinth.
Les Range, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, told the committee that Gulf Coast tourism business is down dramatically since the oil leak caused by the explosion in April of the Deep Water Horizon.
Charter boat reservations, for example, are down 70 percent, based on findings by the University of Southern Mississippi’s International Doctoral Program.
Similar declines can be found in other segments of the tourism industry.
Mary Beth Wilkerson, director of tourism for the Mississippi Development Authority, said reservations at Gulf Coast hotels and motels are down 50 percent
“The phone has stopped ringing on the Gulf Coast,” she said. ” … We have to save our summer season by encouraging people to come to the Gulf Coast now.”
The committee was formed by House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, to look at the state’s response and what legislation might be needed to deal with the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. The committee had its first meeting Tuesday at the state Capitol. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant formed a similar Senate Committee that met last week on the Coast.
Much of the focus on the opening day of the House hearings was on the oil spill’s impact on tourism. Gov. Haley Barbour, who spoke to the committee first Tuesday, said very little oil has actually been found in Mississippi waters, though officials stress that could change. But the impression that the oil spill has hit Mississippi or will soon is having a negative effect on tourism.
Mississippi Gulf Coast tourism is a $1.63 billion industry and accounts for one-third of the state’s tourism revenue. A decline in the tourism industry could have a major impact on what already is a difficult budget situation caused by an unprecedented drop in state revenue collections due to national economic woes.
“This is going to affect all state schools across Mississippi,” Harrison County Board of Supervisors President Connie Rockco said.
Attorney General Jim Hood told the committee he would work to ensure that BP pays the state for all cleanup efforts and for lost revenue.
Hood said he also would demand payment for “replacement costs.”
“But where do you go to buy a brown pelican?” Hood asked, referring to the environmental damage caused by the spill.
Hood said he already has been in negotiations with BP. He said he is demanding that BP establish transparency in processing claims made by individuals and the state, and that the company name an expert to monitor the claims process Hood said he hopes BP fulfills its commitment to pay all costs and that he does not have to sue. But he said he is lobbying Congress to make changes in federal law to ensure any lawsuit filed on behalf of a state remains in state court and is not lumped together in one massive federal court claim. He said Mississippi’s claim would receive more attention in state court.
“We don’t want a dime more than we are entitled to, but we don’t want a dime less,” he said, adding it could take three years or more to determine all the costs associated with the leak.
Thus far BP has provided $25 million to the state to be disbursed in the response effort and $16 million to market the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a tourist destination.
During the hearing, various Coast officials were critical of the state for controlling the expenditure of the tourism funds instead of allowing local officials with more expertise on the Coast’s tourism options to spend the funds.
While Gulf Coast officials expressed those concerns, they did so later in the day after Barbour, who has control of those funds, already had spoken and left.
The governor said the state thus far has spent $1.5 million in response to the spill.
He also said he is urging President Barack Obama to resume deep water drilling despite the leak. He said the moratorium on deep water drilling also would hurt what is now a fragile Mississippi economy.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal