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If battered coast can do it, we can too

The coast is still clear to our southeast, but convincing the world of that message is easier said than done.

Tourist cancellations have come at “a record pace,” Gov. Haley Barbour said Tuesday, and hotels are even offering pre-paid gas cards to attract visitors into town.

No one wants to spend his beach vacation covered in oil, unless it’s the tanning variety, but much of the world fears exactly that when it comes to our coastline right now.

Tuesday’s news that a two-mile long, three-foot wide strand of oil was found on the Petit Bois barrier island only made the job more difficult for state tourism workers.

But the inland beaches are clean. Golfing, seafood, boating and lounging are still readily available in Biloxi, Gulfport and the other communities along the beach.

Of course, this latest battle for the coast certainly isn’t the first.

When Hurricane Katrina flattened and closed many of the area’s great attractions, tourists went elsewhere.

Months, even years passed, before many structures, hotels and restaurants could be re-built. Some still aren’t back, and it’s obvious to anyone with even a small bit of pre-Katrina coastal knowledge that things just aren’t the same.

This oil won’t help matters.

Yet the coastal tourism officials and tourist attractions aren’t letting up.

The Mississippi Golf Coast Association Web site boasts of oil-free coastlines with great golfing nearby.

The Web site visitmscoast.org, clearly labels the area as “open for business.”

Neighbors to the east and west are experiencing the same marketing woes.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., have a special Web site set up with oil spill information, complete with a daily update video featuring an attractive, beachwear-clad spokeswoman standing on white sandy beaches.

Estimates put the impact of the tourism industry along Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas coastlines at $20 billion.

The forecast facing our coastlines helps puts the loss of an occasional steamboat tour in perspective, doesn’t it?

Natchez — which also thrives on tourism — has seen greener pastures too.

The loss of boats dumping tourists and their wallets at our doorstep was difficult to swallow. Katrina’s New Orleans knockout meant fewer bus tours that once began in the Big Easy ever made it to our home, the Little Easy.

And the general economic downturn has meant extra work for those pushing Natchez tourism.

But in the end, our claim to fame — our history — hasn’t been hurt at all.

No high winds and floodwaters ripped apart out attractions. And oil won’t threaten to coat our world like it threatens coastal beaches.

Just as the coast has had to crank marketing into overdrive, Natchez has too.

The tourism industry in a bad, storm-damaged, oily economy isn’t easy for anyone. But it does make money.

With no miracle smokestack on the horizon, our area must take its lead from our battered but not beaten friends on the coast.

Let’s get creative. If gas prices spike, offer a gas card to hotel guests.

If touring old homes becomes old hat, promote our golf courses, biking trails and wonderful river.

Tourism on the coast had fought back after Katrina, and I feel sure the area will survive the latest threat.

Natchez is lucky. Let’s realize it and run with it.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or julie.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.

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