Five years ago today, a rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and set off the worst oil spill in U-S history. In the first part of a week-long series, MPB’s Evelina Burnett looks at how the spill affected tourism, a key part of the Mississippi coast economy with nearly $2 billion dollars in visitor spending just last year.
Charter boat captain Kenny Barhanovich pulls old line off a fishing reel as he gets his boat, the Miss Hospitality, ready for the season. He’s been in the charter boat business full-time since 1974. The fishing usually picks up in March, but it’s been slow so far this year - as it’s been for the past five.
"We were coming back off of Hurricane Katrina, and normally when you have a storm, it takes a good four or five years to get your business built back up," he says. "And we were right on the verge of getting it built back up when the oil spill hit us, and they closed us down for 50-something days. And it's never made a full recovery."
Hotels have also not seen much growth since the spill. Linda Hornsby with the Mississippi Hotel & Lodging Association says 2010 was poised to be a recovery year after Katrina, with numbers going up in the early part of the year.
"We are doing that now - slightly inching up," she says. "But we're still down, not only pre-oil spill, but we're down from last year, which was a bad, bad year."
Tourism on the Gulf coast everywhere took a major hit from the oil spill. But while other areas have seen strong growth in the years since, tourism on the Mississippi coast has in many ways been lack-luster.
Revenue per available room, a key tourism metric, has grown 41 percent on the Florida panhandle and 26 percent on the Alabama coast. On the Mississippi coast, it’s fallen 1 percent.
"On every other day of the week, this is Gulf Shores, Alabama, but I'm proclaiming it Margaritaville, Alabama..."
That’s Jimmy Buffett in July 2010 on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. That event and others like it are part of what Herb Malone, who is head of Gulf Shores-Orange Beach Tourism, thinks helped propel the area to four back-to-back record years.
"We used those big events and had a theme of 'come see for yourself,'" he says. "We felt like we could get people to come for something like a concert, and they see for themselves. And tthey in turn can help us by tweeting out to their friends and their Facebook followers."
Mississippi received $34 million for tourism efforts from BP; $16 million of that was overseen by a Regional Tourism Partnership, formed in 2011 to represent the 3 coastal counties.
Kim Fritz was on the partnership’s board and is now president of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"The partnership decided that the best use of those funds would be to support events, tourism evetns, tourism-driving events, that were really struggling after the spill," she says.
About $5 million of the $16 million was spent on events. More than $10 million was spent on a major advertising and marketing push, and about $400,000 was spent on tourism research.
The post-spill tourism efforts did have some positive impacts - travel and tourism spending rose 11 percent from 2009 to 2014, according to regional figures from the Mississippi Development Authority. The number of tourism jobs has also grown, and gaming revenues are on the upswing too.
Linda Hornsby of the hotel association says the experience also helped highlight the value of tourism.
"We've got some people's attention now, and they do realize how important tourism is, not just to this area but to the entire state," she says.
Another spill legacy: it helped lead to the creation of a regional tourism board for the three Mississippi coastal counties. Philip Shirley is head of Godwin Group, which was the advertising agency for the tourism partnership.
"They did a really good job, I believe, in the tourism partnership in providing a model for how the three coast counties could work together," he says.
As to why the Mississippi coast hasn’t seen the record-breaking years that Alabama and Florida have reported, Shirley thinks it may be a combination of a number of factors in addition to the spill, including the economy, sequestration and the lasting images and effects of Hurricane Katrina's destruction.
"Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Missisippi were all impacted to some extent by all of those circumstances," he says. "If you look at each of those issues, Mississippi truly had the biggest impact from all of them."
Charter boat captain Kenny Barhanovich agrees the economy may be a factor.
"Some people save all year to make their whole vacation to come down for one day of fishing," he says. "I think the economy has something to do with it, but the economy really isn't that bad right now. Something's wrong."
Still, tourism officials are hopeful about 2015, saying new developments like a baseball stadium in Biloxi should bring more visitors.
Tomorrow, we look at some of the spill's environmental impacts on Mississippi's wildlife and ecosystem.