Gulf Officials Try To Strike Right Tone On Tourism

As debate swirls over how much oil is flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from the gushing BP well, another debate is brewing on land: How best to tell potential Gulf Coast visitors the beaches are free of oil (for now).

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Most of the oil from this spill remains miles offshore, and tourism promoters in Mississippi and Alabama want people to know that. But striking the right tone is proving tricky.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports from Gulf Shores, Alabama.

(Soundbite of a song)

TAMARA KEITH: Thirty thousand people are expected here this weekend for the Hangout Beach Music Festival. Big-name musical acts are on four stages, which are all resting on sugar-white sand, just steps away from the crashing waves of the Gulf of Mexico. And lucky for everyone here: The oil spill hasn't crashed the party.

Alabama Governor Bob Riley is doing his best to spread the word.

Governor BOB RILEY (Republican, Alabama): None of us will know what will happen a month from now. But right now, this area is as pristine as I have ever seen it.

KEITH: That same pristine beach plays a starring role in a $1.5 million television ad campaign, set to start running next week.

(Soundbite of an ad)

Unidentified Woman: The coast is absolutely clear. The sugar-white sand, delicious seafood, and lazy afternoons in the sun will refresh your soul.

KEITH: But if the situation changes, the message is going to have to change, too. In Mississippi, tourism officials are grappling with that very problem as they work on their own national ad campaign.

At a meeting of the Gulf Coast Tourism Commission this week in Biloxi, Ted Raymond(ph), of the Big Three ad agency, pitched a possible ad.

Mr. TED RAYMOND (Advertising Executive): Then it starts off: On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the fish are still biting. And we have stock footage of charter boats and of fishing and of fish.

KEITH: In this tape provided by WLOX-TV, Raymond goes on to describe how the ad would end.

Mr. RAYMOND: Our seafood - it's gulf fresh and always delicious. And the only oil on our beach comes out of a bottle. And what we want to do with that is a girl laying on the beach, and the oil that you see is the suntan lotion on her.

KEITH: If the oil were to come on shore, he says the ad would be changed to say: And the only oil you see is sitting by the pool.

The response around the table is pretty clear: The beach is a problem, says Bill Holmes, with the convention center.

Mr. BILL HOLMES (Executive Director, Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center): OK, your hook is your beach, and your hook is going to get snapped off if the oil hits.

KEITH: So the beach is out. Casinos and golfing are in. And instead of humor, the ad will end with an emotional appeal.

Ken Montana is president of the Tourism Commission.

Mr. KEN MONTANA (Tourism Commission): These men and women who are in the tourism business and in the seafood business need you to come down, look and see, and do not believe the national perception that we are closed, but we are open for business.

KEITH: Captain Brandy Moore, of the Biloxi Shrimping Trip, isn't waiting for the Tourism Commission's ad. She's posting new pictures of the clean coast on her website, and sending out emails to all her past customers and tour groups.

Captain BRANDY MOORE (Biloxi Shrimping Trip): And if they think we're covered in oil, they're not coming. So we're trying to really get it out there that we're still here, keep your hotel rooms, come down, come see us. And it's going to pay off in the end.

KEITH: One of those visitors is Jan Coleman(ph), who's leading a tour group from Illinois.

Ms. JAN COLEMAN (Tour Group Leader): In Chicago area, they just say how bad it is, and it's really not this bad. I mean, I haven't seen any oil in the water.

KEITH: Some condo companies along the coast have started clean beach guarantees in an effort to woo visitors down. And that's the right idea, says Bruce Turkel, an expert in brand value who works with major tourist destinations.

Mr. BRUCE TURKEL (CEO, TURKEL): You don't want to be the one who's Pollyanna-ish about it and saying everything is wonderful when things are not. But when things are fine, it's absolutely fine to let people know that.

KEITH: So now, while everything is still fine, he says they should be blasting images of those white-sand beaches everywhere they can.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Gulf Shores, Alabama.

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