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Florida Panhandle tourism tanks as more oil hits beaches

DESTIN — Tourist businesses from Pensacola to Panama City are feeling the full financial crunch of the massive oil spill, as normally packed parking lots sat nearly empty Saturday despite offers of discounts in an effort to drum up customers.

If not for the temperatures in the high 80s, the Florida Panhandle seemed more like the January or February tourist offseason than a weekend day in late June.

Tourism leaders offered discounts and promoted attractions away from the beaches, but it appeared they were losing the battle to keep vacationers as the gummy tar and black crude made its slow creep toward more beaches.

The normally stop-and-go traffic in the tourist town of Destin flowed easily without many of the hundreds of cars from Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and other Southern states that normally cram intersections and jam parking lots this time of year. Beachfront condominiums had signs welcoming walk-in customers, and the nicest hotels advertised vacancies.

Doug Duval, a tourist from Carmi, Ill., walked the beach in Destin early Saturday. A few tar balls were visible in the surf line, and a mechanical sand sifting machine cleaned the beach nearby. "We almost canceled because of the oil, but probably as much of a reason we did come was a chance to see it one more time before it's spoiled for a decade or so," Duval said.

Hotels and rental agencies are doing what they can to salvage any of the summer season by offering discounts and refunding money if beaches are closed because of oil cleanup.

Newman Dailey, the largest vacation rental company in the Destin area, is offering discounts to people who stay five nights or longer through July Fourth and a 100 percent refund if the county closes a beach for safety reasons.

Paula Bolton, a tourist from Oklahoma City, booked a condo with a group of friends for a week through the company but decided to leave a day early after tar washed up. The tar and the distraction of the cleanup crews made the beach less enjoyable for Bolton and her young daughters, she said. She praised the rental company, saying an agent refunded the night without complaint and further discounted the family's vacation because of their inconvenience.

On some July days before the oil spill, Jack Beck would rent all of his more than 70 kayaks, motor scooters and bicycles — taking in more than $1,500 a day. But Beck had no rentals at his Destin beachfront business on Friday. "During spring break, I was sold out for two weeks straight," he said. "The traffic is way off right now, down more than 50 percent."

Beck worries things won't improve next summer. "I don't know if I'll be here this time next year, and that is what is so sad," he said.

The kitschy Paradise Inn on Pensacola Beach, a driveup motel known for its outdoor bar and live music, is usually packed with summer tourists and booked weeks in advance for both the holiday and the annual Navy Blue Angels Pensacola Beach Air Show the following weekend. The parking lot was mostly empty Saturday morning, and desk clerk Julia Rohlman said the inn had open rooms for the next two weekends.

"Some people are making reservations, but others are calling and canceling," she said. "It's not really packed at all. Our bar and grill brings out the locals, but that's about it."

Bulldozers, front-end loaders and hundreds of cleanup workers lined Pensacola Beach as few curious walkers ventured near the water. Tractors and pallets of plastic sheeting for cleanup work filled beach parking lots.

Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that visitor numbers are down compared with last year but that beach businesses were persevering. Rowe didn't have a percentage of how much tourism had dropped in the area.

"We've had a few tar balls here, but we haven't seen any major impacts. We are continuing to tell people that our beaches are beautiful," he said.

The city is using digital billboards in Nashville, Baltimore, Houston and other cities served by a new international airport that opened in Panama City in the last month to show live pictures of Panama City Beach.

"We are being very straight with our visitors," Rowe said.

For the first weekend since the summer tourist season kicked off Memorial Day, the 140-room Grand Cayman Hotel on Panama City beach wasn't fully booked Friday night, said desk clerk Denise Mock. Some of the rooms taken were booked by tourists who had planned to vacation on Pensacola Beach, but headed east to escape the heavier oil.

Mock, a lifelong Panhandle resident, said Panama City Beach businesses were praying their beach doesn't get the thicker oil. "I'm holding out hope those booms can keep it away," she said.

Developments

on oil spill

Tropical weather: A tropical storm like the one swirling in the Caribbean could complicate efforts to contain and clean up the spill. Any system with winds over 46 mph could force BP to abandon efforts to contain the flow for up to two weeks and delay the drilling of two relief wells that are the best hope of stopping it.

Protest: Hundreds of people including Florida Gov. Charlie Crist joined hands on an oil-stained strip of Pensacola Beach as part of an international demonstration against offshore drilling. Organizers of "Hands Across the Sand" said similar protests were held at beaches around the nation and in several other countries.

Containment efforts: Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said two containment systems collected more than a million gallons in 24 hours Friday. BP is looking to add a third vessel that would bring the total capacity to 2.2 million gallons a day. No one knows exactly how much oil is gushing, but worst-case estimates show it could be as much as 2.5 million gallons a day.

VIPs: Some big names are coming to the gulf this week to tour areas affected by the spill. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, President Barack Obama's point man for the cleanup and recovery, arrives Monday for a five-day visit. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and White House energy adviser Carol Browner also will be in the region Monday. Vice President Joe Biden is due to arrive Tuesday.

Florida Panhandle tourism tanks as more oil hits beaches 06/26/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 26, 2010 11:35pm]

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