Bounce in Gulf Tourism Fueled by BP’s Aggressive Marketing Not Real Signs of Recovery


Astonishingly, just a year after the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history swept through the Gulf of Mexico, it’s business as usual on the Gulf Coast. Everything is just like it was before last year’s 200-million-gallon oil spill turned our coastal communities upside down: The tourists are back, the fishing industry is booming, the restaurants are full and all the beach chairs and umbrellas are spoken for. The Gulf Coast is experiencing a miraculous recovery.

Or so says BP.

Tourists are back, and they are spending money. But I wouldn’t pin much hope on this economic uptick being permanent or being a sign that the region is in the final throes of a broad-based recovery. That my friends, is nonsense, despite what BP would have us believe.

The Gulf Coast – and BP in particular – is enjoying the results (I would argue short-lived results) of an aggressive, months-long marketing campaign aimed at luring tourists back to Gulf beaches. Despite the fact that some of those beaches are still littered with tar balls and experience frequent re-oilings, BP’s strategy, for the most part, has worked. Compelled by an advertising and marketing blitz that features plenty of monetary incentives – including “comped” meals, hotel upgrades, “kids stay for free” deals, casino vouchers and gift cards (redeemable at local retail outlets) – vacationers have made their way back to the Gulf Coast.

BP has thrown tens of millions of dollars at “Come Back” marketing, and by most accounts, it’s paying off. Of course, it’s never a bad thing when restaurants are booked solid and lodgings can hang their “No Vacancy” signs once again, but my fear is that this will be a short-lived resurgence. To make matters worse, BP is using this fleeting recovery to make its case for shutting down “future loss” payments to spill victims.

A recent piece in the New York Times, titled “No Vacancies, but Some Reservations,” sets the stage:

It seems like old times here on the Gulf Coast. The Flora-Bama Lounge is hopping, there’s a two-hour wait for a table at the Original Oyster House, and the first complaints you hear among the charter boat operators are about the latest fishing limits – not oil slicks.

In fact, the Times reports that “many tourism-related businesses are having their best summer in years.”

That’s certainly encouraging news, but I wouldn’t go popping the bubbly just yet.

The resurgence we’re seeing – as exciting and welcomed as it is – is much more about successful marketing than about long-term realities (like a healthy Gulf of Mexico). BP has spent tens of millions of dollars in each of the Gulf states to boost tourism. According to the Mobile Press-Register, BP had already shelled out nearly $40 million to kick-start tourism in Alabama alone when the company put up another $16 million in March (see link to article below).

More from the NYT article by Campbell Robertson:

After months of aggressive marketing, largely paid for with the tens of millions of dollars that BP sent to states for that very purpose, tourism officials are now boasting of record, or near-record, numbers: going in to the Fourth of July weekend, tourism officials here reported vacation rental occupancy rates that hovered near 100 percent, all above – and some far above – rates at comparable times in 2009.

BP is using those numbers to its advantage, suggesting that the spike in tourism is evidence of a Gulf in “full recovery” mode. Many Gulf Coast residents beg to differ. And I’m not sure any amount of marketing dollars will be enough to lure tourists back after seeing beaches littered with tar balls and tar mats, and smelling oil instead of the salt air.

Tens of thousands of spill victims are still convulsing over BP’s July 8 filing with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, arguing that the company should be allowed to nix future-loss payments because the areas hit hardest are making an “extraordinary” economic recovery. According to a July 18 article in the Jackson-based Clarion-Ledger: “That would be like saying BP doesn’t owe future payments because the Coast has managed to survive economically despite the worst oil spill in U.S. history.”

Rewind with me. As reported by the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, among a slew of others, just one year ago the Gulf was a “dead zone” with “a chilling lack of life.” In addition, the underwater landscapes that “should have been teeming with fish were near devoid of life but thick with globules of oil.” And, as Dr. Martin O’Connell, director of fish research at the University of New Orleans stated to the Telegraph back in May 2010, “‘the impact on the food chain will be felt for years.'”

Well, sadly Virginia, there is no Santa Claus – as convenient as it would be for BP. The truth is the Gulf is still a huge mess, and the Gulf Coast is still reeling from the fallout. And it will be for years.

From an April 14 Times-Picayune article:

[The Gulf Coast is] still plagued by “chronic re-oiling” from balls of oil and sand that wash ashore after breaking free from submerged mats of degraded oil and sediments, according to officials overseeing federal cleanup efforts.

Hopefully, vacationers on the Gulf this summer don’t mind a little grime and toxicity with their sunscreen and inner tubes. According to the Times-Picayune, Coast Guard Commander Dan Lauer was out at a news conference on Grand Isle in April talking about the ongoing presence of “‘surface residue balls’ – yet another term in an ever-expanding oil-spill lexicon that includes tarballs and oil mousse.”

Not to mention that there will be more than a few raised eyebrows when tourists discover what’s cooking back in the kitchen. According to a report released Saturday in the Pensacola News Journal:

An array of Gulf fish including the prized Gulf red snapper, are not looking very “safe” to scientists today. Skin lesions, fin rot, spots, liver blood clots and other health problems found in an “unusual number” of Gulf fish are alarming scientists.

Sounds like good eatin’, right?

In an April 26 news segment on the PBS Newshour, Louisiana oysterman Dave Cvitanovich is shown operating his boat, then being denied approach to oyster beds he leases by BP remediation crews conducting a cleanup of the area. When Mr. Cvitanovich refuses to leave, a Coast Guard boat approaches him to make sure the irate oysterman leaves his own leased property without incident. The segment’s narrator goes on to explain that such friction between BP and locals has become routine.

Remediation crews, you might expect, are there to remediate. If there were nothing to clean, why would BP cleanup crews and Coast Guard personnel be so intent on keeping the stewards of the local waterways away? More supporting evidence that this resurgence in tourism has less to do with whether the seafood and waters are safe again than with months of aggressive, spectacularly expensive marketing efforts.

BP must be enjoying its summer immensely as Gulf tourism makes a warm-weather comeback – and the world is actually considering whether the Gulf Coast has made a complete and miraculous recovery.

Don’t believe the hype.

Read the NYT article in full here:

Here’s the piece from the Press-Register on tourism promotion in Alabama:

Here’s the Telegraph article:

Read up on Gulf “tourism grants” here:

Here’s the Times-Picayune piece on the Grand Isle presser:

Here’s the PNJ piece on sick fish:

Check out the PBS Newshour segment here:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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