U.S. President Barack Obama declared Gulf Coast beaches clean, safe and open for business Saturday as he brought his family to the Florida Panhandle and promised residents that the government wouldn't forget them once efforts to stop the leak are finished.
On a warm and muggy day, Obama pledged to "keep up our efforts until the environment is cleaned, polluters are held accountable, businesses and communities are made whole, and the people of the Gulf Coast are back on their feet."
Obama is in the region for a brief weekend trip with first lady Michelle Obama, daughter Sasha (her sister Malia is at summer camp) and the family dog, Bo.
Obama and Sasha swam in the Gulf of Mexico's waters on Saturday. Obama said his family planned to "enjoy the beach and the water — to let our fellow Americans know that they should come on down here."
Arriving at their beachfront hotel, the first family ventured to Lime's Bayside Bar & Grill, where they relaxed on an outdoor deck overlooking the water and ate a lunch of fish tacos, chicken tenders and burgers.
The White House scheduled the trip after facing criticism that the president wasn't heeding his own advice that Americans vacation in the Gulf. Obama has vacationed in North Carolina and Maine this year and is heading to Martha's Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast, later in August. Mrs. Obama also travelled to Spain this month with Sasha.
Gulf Coast residents and local officials are hoping the president's stop will jump-start the tourism industry, which has been reeling since the spill.
Tourism officials say the region typically brings in 70 per cent of its yearly income between June and August. Although only 16 of the 180 beaches in the western part of the Panhandle were affected by the spill, tourism officials say many potential visitors have stayed away, deterred by images of oil-slicked waters and tarball-strewn beaches in other parts of the region.
The head of the U.S. Travel Association has proposed that BP, responsible for the oil spill, set aside $500 million for a marketing campaign to help draw tourists to the Gulf states.
It was Obama's fifth trip to the region since the April 20 explosion on a deepwater rig that caused the spill. Obama said he knows Gulf Coast residents have been frustrated by the slow payment of claims from a $20-billion BP fund for those who have suffered damages as a result of the spill, and he pledged to rectify that.
"Any delays — by BP or by those managing the new fund — are unacceptable, and I will keep pushing to get these claims expedited," Obama said.
Alabama's attorney general on Thursday sued BP and other companies associated with the spill, seeking unspecified economic and punitive damages. At least 300 federal lawsuits have been filed in 12 states against BP and the other three main companies involved in the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drill rig.