WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is taking his family to the Florida Panhandle for a weekend trip billed as part family vacation, part presidential sales pitch, as he looks to boost the region’s sagging tourism industry in the aftermath of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The president, first lady Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha (her sister Malia is at summer camp) planned to spend much of their 27-hour trip to Bay County enjoying the area’s recreational activities. But the president also scheduled a meeting with small-business owners as the government’s focus moves from plugging the oil leak to rebuilding the region’s economy.
The trip gives the president an opportunity to “talk to those that have been affected by the damage caused by BP … about what has to happen going forward to restore, both economically and environmentally, the damage that’s been done,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor appointed by Obama to develop a long-term Gulf restoration plan, were to join Obama in the meeting with business owners.
In Florida, and particularly the Panhandle, it’s tourism — the state’s top industry — that’s been hurt most by the spill.
The White House said that participants would include the Panama City Mayor Scott Clemons and Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst, as well as the general manager of a three-hotel chain that has had 1,000 room night cancellations due to the spill, translating into more than $191,000 in lost room revenue alone; the owner of a charter boat company; and the co-owner of a restaurant and two fishing boats.
Tourism officials say the region typically brings in 70 percent of its yearly income between June and August. Although only 16 of the 180 beaches in the western part of the Panhandle were affected by the spill, tourism officials say many potential visitors have stayed away, deterred by images of oil-slicked waters and tarball-strewn beaches in other parts of the region.
The head of the U.S. Travel Association has proposed that BP, responsible for the oil spill, set aside $500 million for a marketing campaign to help draw tourists to the Gulf states.
The White House scheduled the Obamas’ weekend trip after facing criticism that the president wasn’t heeding his own advice that Americans vacation in the Gulf. Obama has vacationed in North Carolina and is heading to Martha’s Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast, later in August. Mrs. Obama also traveled to Spain this month with Sasha.
The Obamas are also bringing the family dog, Bo, for some fun in the Florida sunshine. The biggest question surrounding the weekend trip was whether the president would bring his family to the beach for a dip in the Gulf.
Gibbs sidestepped that question, saying that while the president would have some fun, “whether or not he gets in the water is up for clearly some debate.”
The government’s point man on the spill, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Friday that the blown-out well in the Gulf is not yet securely plugged to his satisfaction. He said that drilling the relief well — long regarded as the only way to ensure that the hole at the bottom of the Gulf never leaks oil again — must go forward.
Work on the relief well was suspended this week because of bad weather. Allen did not say when it would resume, but when the order comes, it could take four days to get the operation up and running again.