Destin, Fla. – Tourism leaders from the Keys to the Panhandle on Thursday weighed the potential benefits of oil drilling near the state’s famous beaches against the damage a major spill could cause Florida’s tourist-driven economy.

Drilling advocates and anti-drilling environmentalists addressed The Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus’ Offshore Oil Summit, which continues through Friday.

But Paul Catoe, president of the association, said his group may have waited too long to have much say in decisions by oil companies, politicians and a public that has increasingly favored drilling. The organization hasn’t decided whether it will take an official stand on the opening up of additional Florida waters to drilling.

“The president, the governor, Congress and everybody has let the sun set on the issues surrounding drilling,” Catoe said.

Last month, Congress allowed a 26-year-old moratorium on drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to expire.

Waters off the western beaches of Florida remain off limits to energy development, at least until 2022, under a law Congress passed two years ago that opened 8.3 million acres of the east-central Gulf to drilling. But some in Congress are pushing to eliminate the ban and Gov. Charlie Crist reversed his long-standing opposition to offshore drilling earlier this year.

Rick Tyler, a spokesman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions for Winning the Future – the tax-exempt political arm of Gingrich’s lucrative business as a writer and consultant – told the group expanded offshore drilling is both safe and necessary.

Tyler estimated the oil business could bring the state $7 billion a year.

“When you start talking about all the competing needs in Tallahassee and then someone offers $7 billion a year, I think you would start some interesting conversations,” he said.

But Enid Sisskin, an environmentalist with the nonprofit Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, said potential problems from oil spills, lost wetlands, threats to wildlife and pollution from drilling had to be considered.

“Tourism in Florida is a $90 million to $100 million a day industry and tourism is all about perception, perception of sugary white beaches, emerald waters and a clean environment,” she said.

Instead of promoting drilling and furthering a natural cultural of energy consumption, she said the state should promote alternative energies and energy independence. And Americans should exhaust foreign sources of oil before exploiting potential untapped reserves off Florida and elsewhere, she said.

Hotel and business owners in Key West are closely following the offshore drilling debate and heavily opposed to expanded drilling, said Harold Wheeler, director of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

“There could be a financial gain to the state, but what is the risk of a spill, a cleanup and the negative economic impact of that,” he said.

Tracy Louthain, spokeswoman for The Beaches of South Walton, said many Panhandle tourism leaders haven’t decided whether they support drilling. “We will take this information back to our business, to our communities, do our homework and make some decisions,” she said.