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 Alabama's plan to revive Gulf tourism includes Taylor Hicks

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PostSubject: Alabama's plan to revive Gulf tourism includes Taylor Hicks   Wed Nov 02, 2011 7:48 am

State tourism officials on Sunday unveiled a new television ad featuring "American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks, part of a wide-ranging effort to help the industry move past the damage done by the massive Gulf oil spill.

But those on the front lines of the fight for coastal tourism dollars acknowledged that the effects of BP PLC's gusher will continue indefinitely.

"We know it's not over. In fact, in a lot of ways, it's just begun," said Herb Malone, president of the group Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism.

Malone, along with state Department of Tourism and Travel Director Lee Sentell and others joined representatives of attractions from across the state Sunday for the first working day of the Alabama Governor's Conference on Tourism.

The conference will continue through Tuesday and feature speakers, including both gubernatorial candidates, several lawmakers and David Bronner, chief executive officer of the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

The star of the show Sunday appeared for less than 30 seconds and only on video.

"Hey, I'm Taylor Hicks, and I can't help but boogie when I'm back in the sugary white sands of Alabama's beaches," the Alabama native said in the new ad, after a short riff on his harmonica.

Standing on the sand in front of crashing blue waves, Hicks invited visitors to "come back to Alabama's beaches and make some great memories." The ad is expected to begin airing next week, officials said.

Hicks was one of the first people to offer to help in the spill's wake, according to Sentell.

Already dealing with a drop in 2009 revenues caused by the global economic downturn, the tourism industry was sent reeling by the massive spill.

"Had a little dip last year because of the recession. We'll have another little dip this year because of dipsticks," Sentell said to laughs.

From the west end of Dauphin Island to the eastern border of Orange Beach, stretches of coastline were coated with thick, brown and orange goo at times over the summer, scaring tourists away and forcing restrictions on fishing and swimming.

The worst seems to have passed, but oil continues to bubble up from under water and sand, and some tarballs are still washing ashore, Malone said.

"To be honest with you, we basically will be digging oil out of sand this spring. We don't know," Malone said.

Tourism is an important source of revenue for business and government, both on the Gulf Coast and for the state as a whole.

Last year, more than 7.1 million people visited Mobile and Baldwin counties, spending some $3.1 billion and supporting nearly 56,300 jobs, according to the tourism department.

The two counties are responsible for a large chunk of the $679 million in state and local tourism tax revenue generated across Alabama.

As efforts to bring vacationers back to Alabama's beaches continue, state tourism officials are preparing campaigns focusing on other attractions, including Alabama music and history.

But Malone is counting on BP claims money, not ad campaigns, to keep Gulf tourism afloat. Ken Feinberg, who has been appointed to oversee the claims process, has said he will start that work next week.

"As of August 23, he holds the keys to our survival and our future," Malone said. "He holds the keys to the vault."

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