BILOXI, Miss. -- Tourism is big business along the Gulf Coast from Mississippi to Florida, where beach resorts, golf courses and more than a dozen casinos rake in billions of dollars every year.
But the white sandy beaches here nearly empty yesterday as the region watched for the arrival of a massive oil slick and feared the delivery of a death blow to one of its biggest industries.
"We really need tourism for our economy down here," said Thomas Amacker, who works at Life's a Beach Jet Ski rentals here. "This has the potential to be worse than Katrina."
Tourism here in Harrison County is a $1.5 billion industry, said Richard Forester, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I don't know that we're ready for this," he said. "How can you be ready for something like this?"
Crews in hard hats and safety vests were doing their best yesterday to prepare the beach for the encroaching slick spreading from the site of an offshore drilling-rig explosion and capsizing two weeks ago that killed 11 workers.
The county has already placed barricades along the beachfront road that can be moved into position to keep people off the sand if oil arrives.
Beach closings shut off economic lifelines for communities along the Gulf Coast.
"We need this island to stay open," said David Kelly, owner of the Break Beach Bar and Islander Package Lounge in Pensacola Beach, Fla. "We need to do everything we can to keep the businesses operable."
A representative of BP PLC, the company responsible for paying for the spill-response effort, attempted to assuage concerns at a community meeting in Pensacola Beach on Monday. "We're deeply saddened, not only by the lives lost, but for the communities impacted," said Liz Castro, director of civic affairs for BP America. "I know how much these beaches are part of your lives."
Beach communities are already reporting a rising tide of hotel-reservation cancellations. Here, Forester said, a couple of fishing tournaments have been pushed back to later in the year.
"The greatest concern that my industry has now is the misconception that we're already closed," he said. "There is no oil on beach. We don't know when or if it's going to get here, but in the meantime, we're still a viable, valuable destination of choice with lots and lots of stuff to offer folks."
In Gulf Shores, Ala., dozens of calls began pouring in last weekend to postpone rentals of beach houses, real estate agents said.
Meyer Real Estate, which manages 1,700 beachfront properties in Alabama, tried to dissuade cancellations by rewriting a policy requiring 30 days advance cancellation notice, instead allowing people to cancel up to a day before. The goal is to relieve customers of having to predict whether the spill will ruin their beach plans, said Sarah Kuzma, the company's marketing director.
"We're hoping some customers will come back and others will wait and see before canceling," Kuzma said. "We're all still watching it very closely."
No crisis yet for casinos
Other businesses along the coast were also seeing fewer tourists.
Amacker at the Jet Ski rental here said he didn't see a single customer yesterday. His water scooters sat bobbing in the waves under clear blue skies and 85-degree temperatures. A lone couple lounged on the beach nearby.
"We're just starting for the season, but we should be busier than this now," he said. "Normally at this time of the year we would see six or seven customers a day."
In Pensacola Beach, the effects are also being felt. Mike Pinzone of Sunset Holding Co., which operates the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier, said normally he would have 200 fishers paying to visit his pier this time of year. On Monday, he was down to 12.
"I've got over $2 million invested on Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier," he said. "I'm in an economical crisis."
But not all businesses are suffering as a result of the spill. So far, Forester and others said, the 11 casinos along the Mississippi coast have not been affected.
"I think most people coming to the casinos realize they're coming here for the casino experience," Forester said. "Oil on the beach not going to impact them that much. There's no oil on the casino floor. No oil in the swimming pool."
At the Beau Rivage Casino here, couples strolled through a glass-domed lobby that gives off an aura of New Orleans' French Quarter. In the attached casino, slot machines chimed and cards shuffled as visitors continued to support the gambling industry. The beach outside stood empty.
"We haven't had any cancellations or anything like that," said Beverly Martin, executive director of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association.
In fact, numbers may increase right now because of a gambling industry conference and trade show starting today in Biloxi. Martin expects about 4,000 visitors to the show, where an exhibition hall is filled with the twinkling lights of the newest games.
Regardless of the impact the spill may have on the communities along the coast, concern, not despair, is the prevailing emotion.
Here, conversations often lead to discussions of the harrowing experience of dealing with hurricanes like Katrina, Ike, Georges and Camille. And that experience of banding together to fight nature's obstacles will help the communities if oil washes up on their beaches, community leaders say.
"We do a doggone good job getting ready for hurricanes. ... We're learning about oil spills," said Buck Lee, executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority in Pensacola Beach.
Forester agreed, and he added that the hurricane experience would help members of his community protect their homes.
"There's one thing about Mississippi -- they have all these surveys about Mississippi's last in this and first in that -- but if you ask the people about how they feel about where they live, we are incredibly happy with our home," he said. "When you have that much invested, you're willing to make the sacrifices necessary to keep it, preserve it, fix it, help it."
And while coastal communities have been struggling to rebuild after 2005's Hurricane Katrina and an economic recession, Forester is optimistic the coast will bounce back even if the worst effects of the oil spill hit his home.
"I'd been saying for some time now that we hadn't turned the corner, but we could see it in the distance," he said. "It may be just a little further away now than it was."
Reporter Paul Quinlan contributed.
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