No oily beaches; Miss. tourism still threatened

Published 12:08 am Tuesday, June 1, 2010

BILOXI (AP) — Paul Dawa and friend Ezekial Momgeri spent Memorial Day on Biloxi beach, sipping Coronas after a night at the Hard Rock Casino.

Both men, originally from Kenya, drove from Memphis for the holiday weekend, which kicks off the summer tourist season on white-sand beaches and a string of flashy casinos.

It’s easy to get the perception from news coverage that oil is everywhere, said Momgeri, a 37-year-old business analyst.

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“We talked about it and we decided to come down and see for ourselves. There’s no oil here,” Momgeri said.

The men were chased off the beach, but not by oil. Instead, a seasonal storm dumped rain and spit lightning.

“We kind of figured that not too many people would be here (because of the oil spill) and we could get good deals,” said Dawa, 36, also a business analyst.

They came to the right place for bargains.

Though some tar balls have been found on Mississippi beaches and barrier islands, major oil deposits from the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon have not reached the shore. Still, the perception that it has soiled white sands and fishing areas threatens to cripple tourism, said Linda Hornsby, executive director of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association

“It’s not here. It may never be here. It’s costing a lot of money to counter that perception,” Hornsby said. “First it was cancelations, but that evolved to a decrease in calls and there’s no way to measure that.”

She estimates hotels are taking a 50 percent hit from usual business, thanks to the spill.

To fight back, they are lowering rates and offering other incentives to lure wary tourists at a time of year when business usually booms. Some hotels are offering a $75 gas card to attract regional travelers.

Charter boats, restaurants and other businesses in the hospitality industry also are being pinched.

“Most charter boat captains would be getting one to two calls a day this time of year. I talked to one who said he hasn’t had a call since the middle of May,” Hornsby said. “And they’re catching tons of fish.”

Bob Taylor owns a bar and several restaurants on the Mississippi coast. Business is down and the prospect it may be August before the leak is plugged is frightening.

“It could be nothing but negative. BP has agreed to do some advertising for the coast, but I’m not sure how much good it will do,” Taylor said.

Rick Carter, co-owner of Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport, issued a statement saying businesses are “watching and waiting to see what the final outcome of this situation will be.”

“We know a healthy Gulf means a healthy economy for our fishing and hospitality industries, which are longtime financial lifelines for the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Carter said.

Hentzel Yucles of Gulfport, who hung out on the beach with his wife and sons, said there just aren’t as many people enjoying the beaches these days.

“Before the spill, even on a Monday or Tuesday, there would be more people here,” he said, pointing down the beach. “Now look around, there’s only one or two families on a mile stretch. It’s sad.”

Yucles and his family sat in their car to wait out a passing shower. Then went back to the beach.

He said the company’s responsible for the spill need to quit “pointing fingers” and find a way to stop the oil that is gushing from 5,000 feet below the some 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. The Deepwater Horizon, operated by BP, exploded April 20 and sank two days later.

“I know a lot of times they’re just trying to cover their own back,” Yucles said.

Meanwhile, “there’s a lot of fear” on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. BP and federal officials are quickly losing people’s faith, Yucles said.

“Katrina was bad. I know this is a different type of situation, but it’s going to effect everybody,” he said. Hurricane Katrina devastated the coast in August 2005.

Ronnie Beard also was afraid she and her friends would find oil on Mississippi beaches, but they took a chance and drove in from Chalmette, La.

“We didn’t know if (oil) came here. We just decided to come for the hell of it,” said Beard. “I don’t think it’s here yet.”

“Yet” is a word spoken often around the coast. While many people try to remain optimistic, there’s no denying there’s a lot of oil offshore.

“Eventually it’s going somewhere. It’s just gloom and doom for everyone,” said Thomas Amacker as he worked at Life’s a Beach, where tourists can rent chairs, wave runners and umbrellas. “Nobody’s coming here to see if the oil is here. They’re just not coming.”

Business is down 20 or 30 percent, Amaker said.

“If it keeps on spewing, (business) is going to stay the same way. We just don’t know what to expect. It’s just a very unpredictable business anyway. We just hope for the best,” Amacker said.