Florida's Tourism Executives Revisit Offshore Drilling

Tourism is Florida's biggest business, and the state's 850 miles of beaches are some of its prime attractions. That's one of the reasons the state's tourism industry has strongly opposed offshore oil drilling.

But some Florida tourism officials are rethinking that stance. Maybe, they say, beaches and oil rigs can successfully coexist.

The number one tourism official in Florida is Gov. Charlie Crist, who surprised many when he voiced his support for offshore drilling at a news conference in June. Crist had opposed it — as had his predecessor, fellow Republican Jeb Bush. But Crist endorsed President Bush's proposal to lift the federal moratorium on offshore drilling.

Rising Gas Prices

Crist said the price of gas was a factor.

"We're a tourist state," he said. "We have to protect the beauty of Florida, but we also need to have people have the opportunity to drive here and be able to afford to do that, too."

Crist says he doesn't believe new offshore drilling would necessarily lower gas prices, but that it's an issue worthy of study. That position was soon endorsed by Visit Florida, the state's tourism advertising arm. In a reversal of its longtime opposition, the group says it now looks forward to hearing both sides in the debate over offshore drilling.

Debating Offshore Drilling

Next month, the Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus will sponsor just such a debate. It's called an "Offshore oil drilling summit."

In the past, this industry association has steadfastly opposed offshore drilling. Executive Director Robert Skrob says he is now re-examining that stance: "We hear that there's new technology. We hear there [are] new processes. We hear everything is a lot safer. And, rather than kind of rush to judgment based on past fears, we want to take a close look."

Environmental Opposition

Environmental and tourism groups have long feared that offshore drilling could bring to Florida the tar balls and other debris sometimes found on other Gulf Coast beaches.

Representing the opposing viewpoint at the meeting will be Enid Sisskin, a volunteer with Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, a Florida group. In her day job, she's an administrator at NPR member station WUWF.

In the past, environmental groups were closely allied with Florida convention and visitors bureaus. "These are people who have been opposed to offshore drilling because they realize how important a clean environment is to our economy," Sisskin says.

That appears to be changing.

Skrob says his organization is, in part, taking its cue from policymakers like Crist. Everyone in Florida tourism, he says, still wants to protect the state's beaches. "But at the same time, it doesn't help the tourism industry or the state economy to have gasoline prices in excess of $3.50 or $4 per gallon."

Risks And Rewards

Skrob's group has invited several oil company executives and lobbyists to talk to tourism officials from across the state about the risks and benefits of offshore drilling.

While other speakers at next month's conference will talk about new, environmentally conscious drilling technologies, David Mica, a lobbyist with the Florida Petroleum Council, expects to focus on the benefits he says drilling would bring to Florida's economy and to the tourism industry.

"We've always made the link that without our products, tourism can't exist and operate in a proactive, positive way in the state of Florida. And now I think they understand that in a much more obvious way than ever before," he says.

But not everyone in Florida tourism agrees.

"We are adamantly opposed to it now and in the future," says D.T. Minich, the head of the tourism bureau in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area.

Minich is not upset that the state association has set up a conference to allow the oil industry to lobby tourism officials. But he expects it will make little difference.

"I guess you would say I'm fairly close-minded," he says. "I just don't see [that] there's a reward. There's no balance between risk and rewards. Tourism is the No. 1 driver of our economy — not oil — and we just can't take that risk."

Minich says tourism officials are very aware of the importance of public perception. Opening the door to offshore drilling, he says, would at the very least present Florida tourism with a significant image and marketing challenge.

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