Hordes of visitors haven't canceled Florida vacations because of the gulf oil spill. But lots of potential tourists are worried enough to put off booking a trip or to look elsewhere.
About four in 10 travelers surveyed last weekend for AAA Auto Club South said the spill would influence their future plans to visit the state's Gulf Coast. Roughly the same number said the spill would have little or no impact, with the rest somewhere in between, said the survey released Wednesday.
The results reflect the problem facing Florida hotel operators: phone calls and internet inquiries have dropped off though no oil has touched a Florida beach. They assume travelers either don't understand or don't want to risk a trip to an oil-stained beach.
"This is the best analogy,'' says Bruce Craul, chief operating officer of the company that owns the Emerald Grande resort in Destin on the Florida Panhandle. "You don't go to Las Vegas when there's a pending dealer strike.''
Tourism businesses in the Panhandle are taking the hardest hit. Everyone has empty rooms for Memorial Day weekend, almost always a sellout, says Carol Dover, executive director of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. The rest of the region's critical summer season looks even worse.
"The Panhandle is hitting 9-1-1,'' says Dover. "The phones aren't ringing, and they're getting very, very nervous.''
Visit Florida, the state's quasi-public tourism agency, began television and online advertising last weekend to reassure tourists in southeastern U.S. markets that the beaches are still clean. The $2.5 million campaign uses slogans such as "Northwest Florida is open for business'' and "the coast is clear.''
Members of Florida's Cabinet on Tuesday criticized the ads, which include stock pictures of rollicking tourists, as too generic. An additional $25 million from petroleum giant BP will bankroll an expanded campaign that will reach additional cities farther north, said Kathy Torian, a Visit Florida spokeswoman.
That's important to the Tampa Bay area and South Florida, which rely heavily on summer tourists flying down from cities in the Northeast and Midwest, said D.T. Minich, Pinellas County's tourism director.
"Now, the focus is on the Southeast drive market,'' he said. "But it's not just the Panhandle in this situation. It's all of us.''
Pinellas hotel operators reported cancellation of 960 room nights — about $150,000 in business — from customers who blamed the spill. That's a fraction of the 32,000 condos, hotel and motel rooms available in Pinellas each day.
But their phones also have gone increasingly quiet. Condo bookings at Plumlee Vacation Rentals in Indian Rocks Beach are running more than 20 percentage points below normal for June and July, says owner Todd Plumlee.
At first he tried to ride out the drought. But on Friday, he essentially did away with penalties for canceling reservations. Plumlee cut rates 20 percent for the summer rentals and eliminated the 10 percent premium for the week of July 4.
"I had to get more proactive,'' he says.
At the Barefoot Beach Resort in Indian Shores, general manager Bill Priakos offers customers a free night's stay if anything's wrong with the beach during their visit. He's confident the loop current will keep the oil spill far away.
So far, bookings at the condo hotel are roughly even with last year. But 2009 wasn't any great shakes: Last year was the first time since 2003 that the number of annual visitors to Pinellas dropped below 5 million. That reflected a nationwide decline in travel as people rattled by rising unemployment and the general economic malaise took fewer and shorter trips.
Tourism in Pinellas and statewide seemed to turn a corner early this year. Some 22.7 million people came to the state during the first three months of 2010, up 2.7 percent from a year earlier, said Visit Florida.
Pinellas had slightly more than 1.1 million overnight visitors from January through March, down 1 percent from a year earlier. But March alone was up nearly 3 percent. "Just as the needle was starting to move, this comes along,'' said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county's tourism agency.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.