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Gulf Coast Businesses Battle the Perception of Oil

By Teresa Collier | Published 02 Mar 2011 08:53am | comments

Oil from last year’s BP spill didn't actually stain Mississippi's mainland shores, but nearly a year later, the perception of it covering the state's beaches and animals is still impacting businesses along the Mississippi coast. Following a season of cancelled vacations and diminishing reservations, coastal businesses are still fighting a battle to change would-be tourists' perceptions. Eve Abrams reports.

Bob Bennet built the Edgewater Inn 24 years ago. The hotel is just across the street from the Biloxi beach.

BOB BENNET
This is our beach view meeting room. Has a beautiful view of the beach.

Unfortunately, ever since last April’s oil spill, business at the Edgewater Inn is down by upwards of 200 thousand dollars, but not because oil washed ashore.
What business did suffer from, says Bob Bennet, is the impression that the entire Gulf Coast was a gooey, horrific disaster zone.

BOB BENNET
You know when people go to make plans, if in the back of their mind they’re gonna see suffering seagulls or birds full of oil, I mean it’s something you would naturally avoid.

LINDA HORNSBY
We somehow got included in reports of all the other areas that were affected by the actual oil, and in doing so it created the perception to visitors who would’ve been coming here that certainly they did not want to.

Linda Hornsby is the executive director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association. She says that though Mississippi’s coast wasn’t environmentally affected, hotel owners are still being affected, economically, by millions of dollars and counting.

LINDA HORNSBY
Everybody’s very anxious to book guests. T hat is the synopsis of it. Nobody is sitting around licking their wounds and crying, but it’s a reality that business is not anywhere near where it was supposed to be, and just eager for any piece of business that comes in.)

Hornsby says that though they’re not where they need to be, reservations are looking better than last year. Visitors who regularly vacation on the Mississippi shore have determined for themselves there’s no oil, and for those who ask

HORNSBY
We tell them the beach is beautiful, it’s probably cleaner than its ever been because of the constant monitoring and filtering.

Bob Bennet agrees.

BENNET
Here on the mainland, where we’re protected by the barrier islands, we got almost absolutely no effect whatsoever.

One of those barrier islands is Ship Island. Located eleven miles off the coast, Ship Island is part of the National Park Service, and by all accounts, a haven of white sand, clear water, and not a single hotel. Kevin Buckle is the director of sales and marketing for Ship Island Excursions, which ferries visitors from Gulfport to Ship Island from April through October. Buckle says part of what makes a barrier island unique is that the actual surface of the island shifts as the tides and winds change. This has made clean up an ongoing effort.

KEVIN BUCKLE
As the island shifts, naturally, more and more oil is being discovered. And then the clean up crews go and pick it up only to go back to the same area at a later date they can see that more oil has been exposed. So it’s not washing up, per se from the Gulf. It was already there. It’s just now being exposed.

Ship Island ferry has been under contract with BP and US environmental services to transport clean-up workers back and forth in order to get the island ready for the tourist season. Buckle says so far BP has stood by its word to restore the island. He says the crews are doing a great job.

BUCKLE
We know the water’s beautiful and the island’s still beautiful, but we just still haven’t been able to measure the total impact of the oil spill from a company point of view. You have to measure the impact of how the potential visitors interpret the oil spill.

How the shifting tides of tourist perceptions will settle over the coast is something only the coming months can answer. For Mississippi Public Broadcasting, I’m Eve Abrams. 

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