PENSACOLA — Last summer, John Ehrenreich wondered whether his Pensacola Beach go-cart track and parasailing business would make it through the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
But this summer, business has boomed at Bonifay Water Sports, Ehrenreich said as he waited for a parasailing group to return. And he's not the only local businessman with good news. Beach towns from Alabama through the Florida Panhandle have had a strong summer 2011 rebound after a 2010 marred by tar balls, crude oil sheen, and cleanup crews and equipment ruining the views for any would-be sunbathers.
"Tourists don't even mention the spill now. They haven't mentioned it really at all in the last six months," said Ehrenreich.
Tourism leaders say the post-spill economic bounce is fueled in part by an influx of BP money that has gone to promote Gulf Coast beaches. Another positive for the string of white sand beaches from Alabama to Florida's Big Bend made it through the end of August without any disruptions from tropical storms or hurricanes. While hurricane season isn't over yet, the biggest storm so far this year, Irene, spared the area when it veered farther north.
Pensacola Beach bested a June 2008 record for county lodging tax revenues this year by already bringing in $1 million. And county tourism officials said numbers for cars passing through the toll booth entrance to Pensacola Beach this summer are on target to break records.
The city of Pensacola also had a record summer tourist season. The National Naval Aviation Museum at the Pensacola Naval Air Station reported its best month ever this July with 140,000 visitors coming to see the collection of historic fighter jets and other displays.
Nearby Orange Beach, Ala., beat a 2007 record for spring tourism. The city said visitors spent $65 million on hotels and other lodging from March to May, a 14 percent increase from the 2007 record. Orange Beach also had a record May.
Perhaps no city had more at stake this summer than Panama City Beach. The Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport opened there in the midst of the oil spill in May 2010. Before the spill, city leaders had planned on a banner year with Southwest Airlines luring tourists from Baltimore, Houston, Nashville and Orlando. After the spill, the city struggled to get out the message that its beaches were largely free of oil and untouched by the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout.
"This is the type of summer we had hoped to have last year," Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said recently.
Rowe credited the strong 2011 rebound on numerous things, including the new airport, an infusion of advertising cash from BP and worldwide publicity from an August 2010 visit by the Obamas to Panama City Beach that included photographs of the president and daughter Sasha swimming in oil-free bay waters near the Gulf of Mexico.
"A lot of people heard about us as were telling our story and responding to the spill. They saw our emerald-green waters and sugar-white beaches. More than 8.5 billion people saw the first family coming to visit," Rowe said.
Unlike Florida vacation spots farther south, Panhandle beaches are largely summer destinations. Rowe said more than 50 percent of his city's tourism revenue is generated between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Gulf Coast beaches hope to continue the strong summer after Labor Day with a string of targeted discounts, promotional events and fall concerts.
The exclusive Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Walton County between Pensacola Beach and Panama City in the Florida Panhandle is offering visitors who stay two nights a free third night through Dec. 26. The Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce has an American Express gift card program that gives visitors who pay for three nights of lodging in the area a $100 gift card.
Beach towns also are planning Oktoberfests this fall, weekend concert series and art festivals.
"We are dealing with three times more marketing dollars than we've ever had. That's allowed us to fly in travel writers and to advertise in places like Chicago and Washington, D.C., that have been too expensive for us in the past," said Bay County Tourism Development Council spokeswoman Laura Lee.
Since the blown-out well stopped spewing crude oil last year, Panama City Beach's tourism revenue has been up consistently over the previous year, she said.
But the infusion of BP compensation cash is set to run out in April.
Lee said Panhandle tourism leaders in Pensacola and elsewhere are looking ahead to how the area can continue to compete with other Florida destinations like Tampa, Orlando and Miami.
"We've been working with the Tourism Development Council to try and come up with a solution," she said.