WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is heeding his own advice to American vacationers, taking his family to the Gulf Coast this weekend to help the sagging tourism industry.
The president will arrive Saturday and spend just over 24 hours in the Panama City, Fla., area, a quick jaunt in contrast to the family’s upcoming 10-day vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, known as a destination for the wealthy and privileged.
White House officials dismiss questions about the length of the family’s stay, saying that has no relation to the president’s commitment to the region’s recovery.
“The president is deeply committed to the folks in the Gulf region,” said White House spokesman Bill Burton. He said Obama wants to ensure the people of the Gulf Coast are “made whole again after what was a terrible catastrophe.”
Obama’s been promoting the idea of Gulf travel as a way for Americans to help the region’s recovery. The White House says the Obamas and daughter Sasha (her sister Malia’s at summer camp) plan to spend much of their time in the Gulf enjoying the area’s recreational activities.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama also will meet with small business owners to discuss the recovery efforts. They’ll be joined by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi chosen by Obama to develop a long-term Gulf Coast restoration plan.
In Florida, particularly the Panhandle region where the Obamas will spend the weekend, it’s tourism — the state’s top industry — that’s been hurt most by the spill.
Tourism officials say the region typically brings in 70 percent of its yearly income between June and August. But despite the fact that just 16 of the 180 beaches in the western part of the Panhandle were effected by the spill, tourism officials say many potential visitors have stayed away, deterred by images of oil-slicked waters and tar-ball strewn beaches in other parts of the region.
The head of the U.S. Travel Association has proposed that BP — the company that held the lease to the offshore rig that exploded April 20 and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf — set aside $500 million for a marketing campaign to help draw tourists to the Gulf states.
Obama has tried to do his part to boost tourism on four previous trips to the region, urging Americans to include the Gulf Coast in their summer travel plans.
“This is still a place that’s open for business and welcoming so vacationers and people can have a wonderful holiday here,” Obama said during a June trip to Pensacola, Fla.
The first lady went a step further during a July visit to Panama City Beach, Fla., practically ensuring that her own family would vacation in the Gulf when she said, “One of the best ways that fellow Americans can help is to come on down here and spend some money.”
Scientists from BP and the federal government are reviewing the results of testing that could determine whether the leaking Gulf of Mexico oil well has been plugged for good.
BP said in a news release Friday that the testing was completed Thursday night. Officials expect to make a recommendation soon to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the spill response.