Offshore-drilling debate steps on tourism’s toes


What happens when the chairman of the state board that oversees tourism marketing decides to change his position on the very thing that could forever alter the landscape and reputation of Florida’s highest-profile industry?

We’re about to find out.

Gov. Charlie Crist, chairman of the Florida Commission on Tourism, says he now may be willing to open Florida’s beaches to offshore oil drilling.

That puts Florida’s real tourism bosses – who actually work in the business – in an awkward position.

Until now, the state’s hospitality lobby has maintained a cozy relationship with Crist. He has supported budget increases for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism advertising arm, which will see a 7 percent increase of roughly $2 million next year as other programs suffered in a historically tight budget.

“Jeb Bush was a champion of tourism as well, but Governor Crist seems to be a little more hands-on,” said Nicki Grossman, chairwoman of Visit Florida and vice chairwoman of the tourism commission.

Now top of mind is how involved the governor will let the tourism bosses be when it comes to setting policy on drilling. They were not given a heads-up about Crist’s reversal last week, which came in response to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s support of lifting the drilling ban.

“We just want to continue to remind our friend that we have an enormous economic stake in the decision,” said Grossman, also chief executive of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Tourism wants to be part of the discussion, not just somebody who gets the final report.”

That’s the least they deserve. And they shouldn’t stop there. The industry should hold strong in opposition to drilling even though it would mean parting ways with Crist and their other big business buddies at the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

I’m already seeing signs that the industry is softening.

During the 2006 governor’s race, big tourism vehemently opposed drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here we are two years later and the same industry that is getting stung by record-high gas prices and a grim economy says it’s willing to consider alternatives.

“Fuel prices are killing us,” said Carol Dover, chief executive of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, which has more than 10,000 members.

But she’s not convinced that new drilling would bring any relief.

“There’s a lot of studying that has to be done on this,” she said.

Don’t believe the political rhetoric that drilling will lower gas prices and lessen our dependence on foreign oil. That’s election-year talk.

Crist was conspicuously absent at last week’s tourism commission meeting in St. Augustine, where the topic came up.

Visit Florida President Bud Nocera agreed to have his staff research the economic impact of drilling on the tourism economies of places like Texas and California.

Mark McHugh, chief executive of Gatorland and chairman of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, grew up in Texas and has seen first hand what oil drilling does to a shoreline.

“I sure hate to have to wash the oil tar off our feet after a walk on one of our beautiful beaches,” he said. “If you get some oil production, you’re going to see some oil wash up.”

Don’t assume landlocked Orlando is immune from the fight to preserve the beaches. Local attractions, especially the theme parks, get day-trip business from out-of-state tourists staying at the beach.

A Walt Disney World spokeswoman declined to comment on the oil-drilling debate.

At a time when the economy is prompting more tourists to stay home, the state can’t afford the negative perceptions or realities that come along with offshore drilling.