After spending more than $1 million from BP to attract summer visitors, Pinellas tourism officials are asking the oil giant for nearly five times as much to bolster the fall and peak winter seasons.
"Even more is needed as we move into the national and international feeder markets that comprise the bulk of visitation to our area in fall and winter," D.T. Minich, director of the county's convention and visitors bureau, wrote to BP on Friday. "This is the most important time of year for visitation and bed tax revenue."
Pinellas could face as much as a 25 percent drop in tourism if officials don't advertise to convince tourists that oil from the gulf spill is nowhere near the county's beaches, Minich said.
BP will review the proposal, said vice president Ray Dempsey. He noted that Gov. Charlie Crist's office sent Pinellas $1.15 million of the $25 million the company gave the state to promote tourism. "It will be absolutely incumbent on us to see how that worked," Dempsey said.
Minich and beach businesses insist tourism has suffered from the spill. Just the association of Florida beaches and oil on news programs sullied the entire state's image, the say.
About a quarter of previous Pinellas tourists questioned online in May said the spill would make them less likely to come back, Minich said. Visit Florida, a quasipublic tourism agency, says the state's $65 billion tourism industry could be down 10 percent in the coming year.
Staffers of the Pinellas tourism agency making calls in Washington, D.C,, repeatedly heard questions about oil on the beach. Minich got it from hotel clerks and a cabbie in Boston last week.
BP pledged an additional $7 million last week for Panhandle counties to advertise for late-summer tourists. They earlier received about half the original $25 million.
In Pinellas, tourism drops off a cliff after Labor Day and doesn't perk up until Thanksgiving. But the winter and spring is when beach hotels, restaurants and shops ring up profits that tide them over through the rest of the year.
Minich proposed a two-pronged program. One targets the county's top domestic feeder markets — including New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia — which rank among the most expensive places to advertise.
The county also would join with European tour operators promoting Pinellas in the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. "Please note the urgency of our request regarding international markets, since the bulk of 2011 travel decisions will be made in the coming weeks," Minich wrote.
Visitor numbers for Pinellas were up 2 percent from a year earlier in May, the first full month of the Horizon Deepwater spill. Hotel bed tax revenues fell, but only 2.2 percent.
The year-to-year statistics are deceiving because 2009 was a bad year, said David Downing, deputy director of the convention and visitors bureau. "We're still climbing out of a hole."