The first month after the BP's broken offshore well started spewing oil wasn't a disaster for Pinellas tourist businesses.
More than 363,000 overnight visitors came to Pinellas in May, up 2 percent from a year earlier, according to a report for the county's Tourist Development Council. County lodging tax collections for the month slipped just 2 percent from May 2009.
"In many ways, this is a positive," said Walter Klages, who tracks tourism for Pinellas and other counties on Florida's gulf coast. In contrast, "certain beach destinations in the Panhandle are reporting 50 to 60 percent contractions in (hotel room) occupancy."
Local tourism officials worried that visitors watching oil wash up on Northwest Florida beaches would stay away from the entire state. But in May, nearly 29,000 tourists from the Southeast states came to Pinellas — up 36 percent from a year earlier.
That reflected the county's share of travelers who changed vacation plans after the oil spill, said Lloyd Williams, managing director of the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor.
"We've seen a little bit of an uptick from people who had thought about going to the Panhandle," he said. Resorts in Amelia Island and Hilton Head, S.C., also report a spike in bookings from the Southeast.
The county is targeting the Tampa Bay area and Orlando with a $2 million summer ad campaign, half of it funded by a share of $25 million BP gave the state for tourism promotion. Floridians made up nearly a quarter of Pinellas' 572,000 overnight visitors last July, more than any other feeder market.
Locals are receptive audience, said D.T. Minich, the county's tourism director. They regularly fill beach hotels on the weekend and know the BP spill hasn't fouled Pinellas beaches.
Still, the county is changing advertising messages. The "We're Open" pitch will be replaced with print and radio ads that cut to the chase: no oil here.
Newspaper ads running this weekend show beach scenes — playful kids, a clean and healthy brown pelican — with the image of a car's oil gauge, the needle pointing to empty.
The biggest threat is the potential fallout for Florida tourism if gulf currents carry oil to internationally famous beaches in the Florida Keys and South Florida, says Minich. A report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration two weeks ago showed a 61 to 80 percent chance of oil reaching within 20 miles of the coasts of Fort Lauderdale, the Keys and Miami.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.