SID SALTER: Come back, Mr. President, and take in a Gulf state vacation

By Sid Salter

While on the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Monday, President Barack Obama had a lemon-lime snow cone, ate some local seafood and made this very sensible statement about what he saw in Gulfport:
“A lot of beaches are not yet affected or will not be affected. We want to make sure that people who have travel plans down here to the Gulf area remain mindful of that because if people want to know what they can do to help folks down here, one of the best ways to help is to come down here and enjoy the outstanding hospitality.”
Amen, Mr. President.
Mississippi’s tourism industry has taken it on the chin despite the fact that Gov. Haley Barbour and other public officials – Democrat and Republican alike – have said repeatedly that the state’s coast remains clear. And a normal, positive vacation experience is still available in Mississippi despite significant oil spill damage in parts of the Gulf states region.
Barbour in particular has been criticized for supposedly downplaying the severity of the spill and spending too much time promoting the state’s Gulf Coast tourism concerns. But after taking a look for himself, Obama had the same reaction as Barbour offered.
The facts are that Mississippi is incredibly fortunate not to have oil on the state’s coastline – as Louisiana, Alabama and Florida have already experienced. Some suggest that Mississippi’s good fortunes have been less about luck than about geology – citing the state’s barrier islands and the undersea DeSoto Canyon as natural barriers to the oil reaching Mississippi’s coastlines.
But fear of the oil spill – and the 24/7 images of oil-coated fish, birds and marine life on fouled beaches in the marshes of Louisiana – has taken a major toll on Mississippi tourism.
The Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association has been aggressive in lowering rates and offering other incentives like $75 gas cards to lure visitors back to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
President Obama’s visit – and his Barbouresque tourism testimonial replete with consuming a plate of local seafood – will definitely help. But times are going to be tough for those in the tourism trade for months along the Gulf Coast. From Louisiana to Florida, the intersection of reality and fear over the oil spill has been a tourism accident scene.
An out-of-state caller who watched Obama sharing a snow cone with Barbour on the beach at Gulfport called me after the presidential visit with an observation too good not to share.
He said: “Seems to me that if President Obama really wants to help the Gulf region, he ought to take his own family on a vacation down there.”
Let’s see now. The Obamas have vacationed in Chicago, Martha’s Vineyard and the Grand Canyon since taking office.
But the symbolic value of a presidential vacation along the Gulf Coast during the BP oil spill in which Mr. Obama and his family “enjoy the outstanding hospitality” of Pensacola or Orange Beach or Gulf Shores or Biloxi or Gulfport or Bay St. Louis or south Louisiana would speak volumes in encouraging the rest of the nation to follow suit.
Not only would it focus attention on the oil spill calamity, it would show President Obama the truth of the fact that the hardest hit areas of Mississippi and Louisiana that were pounded by Hurricane Katrina still haven’t recovered.
Killer hurricane. Major recession. Now this unrelenting oil spill. Times are hard and getting harder on the Gulf Coast – as Obama can see.
A Gulf state vacation is a fine idea, Mr. President. Come down again soon – and stay awhile.

Sid Salter is Perspective editor for The Clarion-Ledger. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or ssalter@clarionledger.com.