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Florida Tourism Requests Funds For Damage Control

Florida tourism to governor: BP or no BP, the money is needed now

Alex Tiegen  May 14, 2010

Florida tourism industry says it needs more than $34.7 million from the state right now to prove Florida beaches are unsullied by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Visit Florida Board of Directors urged Gov. Charlie Crist Wednesday to secure the money for an immediate marketing campaign that will show the state’s beaches are clean and safe. But if the tourism advocates gathered in the Horizon Ballroom at the Hotel Duval in Tallahassee expected to hear something more than vague reassurances, they were out of luck.

The state’s official tourism marketing board has been advocating for an emergency injection of millions of dollars from the state for tourism and hospitality businesses, especially those in the Panhandle, where the spill could land if it reaches Florida shores. BP, which leased the rig that unleashed the Gulf oil spill in late April, has already promised to cut the state a $25 million check for damages, but that might be too little, too late for the state‘s largest industry.

“I‘ve already begun to meet with the BP directors. I will continue to do so and everything we can possibly do to make that a more significant allocation,” a T-shirt-clad Crist told the board.

Visit Florida is requesting $24.7 million from the state Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development to fund a campaign to advertise beaches statewide and $10 million to concentrate on local campaigns.

Crist sent a letter Wednesday to BP's president, asking the company to give $34.7 million to the tourism industry. He sent another letter to the federal Small Business Administration asking for immediate financial assistance for the tourism industry and other businesses in 19 counties in which he has declared a state of emergency.

Visit Florida currently has more than $2.5 million for an emergency promotions campaign, part of it cut from another campaign to battle the bad press and erroneous word-of-mouth claims that the spill has arrived on Florida shores. But it’s not enough, the tourism board members insisted. The constant news of the spill, including an erroneous Twitter message Wednesday about tar balls washing up on Destin’s shores, are discouraging visitors.

“As of yesterday, I can tell you, restaurant and hotel owners in the Panhandle, most of them hit the 911 button,” said Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Usually, phones are ringing so frequently around this time of year that businesspeople lack the time to answer the barrage of questions form curious tourists, Dover said.

“Yesterday, there were no calls,” she aded. "They were letting people go home because the phones weren’t ringing. Reservations had dropped down from the 90th percentile down to the teens. And we cannot seem to get the message out fast enough [that the state remains open for business]."

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the state should front the money the tourism industry needs right now and then file a claim to recoup the money from BP. Crist isn’t doing enough to make sure Florida gets the money it needs, he said.

“Our governor should use earned media to tell the story that Florida’s beaches are open,” he said.

Instead of concentrating on calling a special session to ban off-shore oil drilling that’s not needed, the governor should be getting national face time to make sure that the state gets the money it needs, he said.

Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, released a letter Wednesday calling for Crist to follow Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's example by not showing deference to BP.

"Florida should allocate whatever resources are necessary on the front end by authorizing work to begin immediately," he wrote.

Florida tourism to governor: BP or no BP, the money is needed now
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