WASHINGTON – States bordering the gushing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico need as much as $500 million to boost tourism with marketing campaigns aimed at cleaning up their image, tourism executives said Tuesday.
The federal government should help Gulf states coordinate with BP to receive money for promoting a region dependent on visitors, the executives said during a breakfast meeting of industry representatives.
Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, proposed the $500 million figure as a reasonable sum for lifting tourism in the Gulf states. He did not say whether the money should come from the $20 billion escrow fund for damages that BP promised at the urging of President Barack Obama.
The city of New Orleans has asked BP for $75 million to use for marketing. Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have sought $55 million from BP in a joint request from SouthCoast USA, a nonprofit trade association that helped revive tourism after Hurricane Katrina.
"Everything is perception and image in our business," Perry said.
Tourism executives and Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., lamented news reports showing oil-drenched birds and tar balls on beaches even though large stretches of Gulf coastline are clear.
Canceled hotel stays and eliminated jobs are easier to account for than the loss of potential tourists, Perry said. The latter doesn't fit BP's claims process.
The U.S. Travel Association is planning to unveil a recovery plan for Gulf states within a few weeks. One idea is a website providing real-time information on all states in the region.
"The Obama administration has been a great ally to the industry in this effort," said Geoff Freeman, a senior vice president of the U.S. Travel Association. "From walking the beaches of the Gulf coast and eating the food, he's sending the message that the area's open for business."
Uncertainty pushes visitors away from the tourist-dependent states as oil continues to spill from the rig that blew up April 20.
One hotel owner in St. Petersburg, Fla., told U.S. Travel Association President Roger Dow that calls for bookings were down 27 percent. Up to three-quarters of hotel reservations have been canceled, according to Visit Florida President Christopher Thompson.
In Florida, 80 million visitors generated $60 billion in 2009, Thompson said. June through August is the peak season for the state's northwest region, which brings in 70 percent of its yearly income during the summer, he said.
The need to fix the image of the states bordering the Gulf is urgent or late-booking trends and doubt about vacationing in the Gulf will persist for years, Perry said.
He offered an example of the long-term effects: An American medical organization recently doubted planning a 2015 conference in New Orleans, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. The meeting of 15,000 means a "$30 million piece of business," he said.