ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
When there are no hurricanes, Florida's biggest business is tourism. The state's beaches are some of its prime attractions. But can beaches and oil rigs coexist? That's been a big question in the debate over offshore drilling.
Florida's tourism industry has been one of the strongest opponents of drilling. But some members of the industry are rethinking that stance. As NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, the tourism people have invited oil company people to their annual convention next month.
GREG ALLEN: The number one tourism official in Florida is the governor. And in June, Florida Governor Charlie Crist surprised many when he took a new position on offshore drilling. He had opposed it, as had his predecessor, fellow Republican Jeb Bush. But Crist dropped that opposition and endorsed President Bush's proposal to lift the federal moratorium on offshore drilling.
SIEGEL: You know, we're a tourist state. 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.
ALLEN: Governor 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.
Next month, the Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus will sponsor just such a debate. It's called an Offshore Oil Drilling Summit. As the head of an industry association that has steadfastly opposed offshore drilling, Executive Director Robert Skrob now sounds very open-minded.
M: We hear that there's new technology. We hear there's 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 fresh look.
ALLEN: 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 beaches. But now, Skrob says the organization is in part taking its cues from policymakers, like Governor Crist. Everyone in Florida tourism, he says, still wants to protect the state's beaches.
M: But at the same time, it doesn't help the tourism industry or our state's economy to have gasoline prices in excess of $3.50 or $4 a gallon.
ALLEN: 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.
Representing the opposing viewpoint at the meeting will be Enid Sisskin. Sisskin is a volunteer with Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, a local group in Pensacola. In her day job, she's an administrator at NPR member station WUWF.
In the past, she says, environmental groups were closely allied with Florida convention and Visitors Bureaus.
M: These are people who have been opposed to offshore drilling because they realize how important a clean environment is to our economy.
ALLEN: That appears to be changing. David Mica is a lobbyist with the Florida Petroleum Council and one of the oil industry's speakers at next month's conference. While others at the conference will talk about new environmentally conscious drilling technologies, he expects to focus on the benefits he says drilling would bring to Florida's economy and tourism industry.
M: 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.
ALLEN: Not everyone agrees.
M: We are adamantly opposed to it now and in for the future.
ALLEN: D.T. Minich is the head of the tourism bureau in the St. Petersburg- Clearwater area. He's not unhappy that the state association has set up a conference to allow the oil industry to lobby tourism officials. But at least in his case, he expects it will make little difference.
M: I guess you would say I'm fairly close-minded because I just don't see that there's a reward. There's no balance between risk and reward. Tourisms are number one driver of the economy, not oil, and we just can't take that risk.
ALLEN: Minich says one thing tourism officials are very aware of is 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.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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