Oil is gone from Florida beaches. But many travelers don't believe it, even months after BP capped off its broken well in the gulf.
Surveys show large numbers of potential visitors say Sunshine State beaches remain fouled by the spill, including some hundreds of miles from where oil touched shore. As a result, many say they're unlikely to take their next vacation in Florida.
"This was the most watched story of the summer," said Will Seccombe, chief marketing officer for Visit Florida, the state's quasi-public tourism agency. "It's really scary. It's a serious misperception."
Last month, researchers working for Pinellas County interviewed 90 potential visitors via live video. Nearly one-third said the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area had been "very affected" or "somewhat affected" by the spill. Just over half of them planned to choose another vacation destination, said Walter Klages of Research Data Services in Tampa.
In a survey by Conde Nast Traveler magazine in mid July, most readers correctly identified Panhandle destinations Pensacola, Destin/Fort Walton Beach and Panama City as having oil on their beaches. But some also picked out west coast cities from St. Petersburg to Naples (16 percent) and even Jacksonville and Amelia Island (6 percent).
Orlando-based YPartnership has been asking travelers on behalf of Visit Florida how perceptions about the spill changed their vacation plans. Among the destination readers were less likely to visit were the Panhandle (20 percent), St. Petersburg (15 percent) and the Florida Keys (12 percent).
''There's a clear correlation between the continuing misperception in the marketplace and the loss of Florida's market share of leisure travelers," Seccombe said.
Visit Florida has asked BP to bankroll a $75 million tourism advertising blitz, he said. A first phase running through year's end would promote that beaches are clean and open for business, followed by a six-month campaign to rebuild the state's sun and fun brand. BP hasn't responded yet, Seccombe said.
Making a case with the most commonly cited tourism numbers might not be easy.
For April, May and June — the first three months of the spill — an estimated 20.8 million people visited the state, according to Visit Florida. That was up 3.4 percent from a year earlier.
Pinellas County also posted small single-digit increases for the three-month period, in part because business over the same period in 2009 was so weak. Also, the county attracted more Florida tourists, who knew the beaches were clean and took advantage of some lower prices.
But leisure travel increased at a faster rate elsewhere in the country, Seccombe said. Florida's share of a growing national travel market shrank because of the spill, he said.
At a meeting Wednesday of the Pinellas Tourist Development Council, some members wondered why Visit Florida hadn't retooled its current advertising campaign to fight traveler misperceptions. "A missed opportunity," said Tim Bogott, CEO of the TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach.
The agency doesn't have the money — yet — Seccombe said later.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.