The massive oil spill spreading out in the Gulf of Mexico has Florida's tourism industry on edge.
Hotel operators, bar owners and tour companies know just how quickly travelers from the United States and overseas change plans when news of a disaster breaks.
"Now, the news media in Europe has it as an environmental story,'' says D.T. Minich, tourism director for Pinellas County, who calls his contacts in Germany and England for daily updates. "But the minute some of this oil makes landfall, it will become a tourism story about the beaches.''
A slick on Pensacola's beaches could curtail tourism as far away as Miami, since many overseas visitors will hear "Florida beaches hit with oil" and not make the distinction between particular locations.
"If (the spill) hits a Florida beach anywhere, it's like when we have a hurricane or wild fire,'' said Minich. "A lot of people don't understand how big Florida is.''
The spill already is getting plenty of play in the European media.
The Times of London had a headline on its website: "U.S. faces worst oil spill in its history." The BBC's story, with a headline of "U.S. steps up oil disaster response," did not mention Florida, at least not as of Thursday afternoon.
Tourism ranks among Florida's top industries, along with health care and retailing. Tourists spent $65.2 billion in 2008 and supported just over a million jobs, according to VisitFlorida, the state's quasi-public tourism agency. Overseas visitors are particularly valuable since they tend to stay longer and spend more.
Florida isn't in immediate danger, but the spill was expected to wash into the Mississippi River delta on Thursday night.
The head of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association urged visitors not to change vacation plans or scratch the state as a summer vacation choice. "Florida is open for business, and we welcome tourists to our 1,800 miles of coastline and 1,200 miles of sandy beaches,'' said CEO Carol Dover.
The travel industry nationally and in Florida was seeing signs of a nascent recovery this year after a disastrous 2009. Beach communities in the Florida Panhandle could lose the heart of their peak summer season, said Walter Klages, who conducts tourist research for four Gulf Coast counties, including Pinellas.
Winter and spring months remain the Tampa Bay area's biggest draw. But the summer drive market has been increasingly important, said Klages. Losing that ''could have a distracting effect — people could take their eyes off us as a destination.''
The potential lurking out in the gulf revived foul memories of how a bunker oil spill in 1993 undermined tourism and waterfront living on the south Pinellas beaches for at least four years. Lawsuits filed by hotel operators to recover damages went on for eight years.
Hotels emptied after the oil washed on to the gulf beaches and spread into Tampa Bay and the finger fill islands in Boca Ciega Bay. The initial clean-up took weeks.
But that was just the beginning. Thick, viscous tar balls fouled the beach bottom and settled into the sand on shore for years. After every heavy rain, clean-up crews were summoned to scrub out a two- to three-inch-wide line of oil that bubbled to the surface at the high tide line.
Hotels deployed alcohol and soap for guests to clean up the oil clinging to their feet and ankles after wading into shallow surf. Most hotels had to be completely recarpeted. Some did the job more than once because many guests refused to clean their feet.
"It would be just heartbreaking to go through all that again," said Greg Nicklaus, co-owner of the Sirata Beach Resort, a 380-room hotel in St. Pete Beach. "But that spill was relatively confined to only about 10 square miles compared to this one. I doubt this state has done anything to build up the resources, training and equipment needed to quickly respond in case we have another one."
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.