Florida's quasi-public tourism agency bungled its response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as potential visitors are increasingly confused about the condition of Tampa Bay beaches, local tourism officials say.
Pinellas tourism director D.T. Minich says he began urging Visit Florida last week to send out a positive message to potential visitors: No oil had touched any Florida beach and the spill threatened only the northwest corner of the state for now.
It wasn't until Monday afternoon that information went up on the Visit Florida website that the state's beaches were "clear and open."
Even worse, the agency sent out a news release to its international representatives over the weekend that focused on ways to counter potential health risks and how state agencies were gearing up for an environmental disaster.
Visit Florida's office in London sent the release to dozens of companies in the United Kingdom that sell vacations to the Sunshine State. Among the tips for Floridians and visitors: Don't try to help oiled-coated birds, avoid strenuous activities outside and don't fish in oil spill-affected waters.
"It is absolutely preposterous that Visit Florida is sending out e-mails with the official emergency response team report," Minich e-mailed to Chris Thompson, the agency's president and CEO. "We do not need our tour operators being instructed about air-quality issues, what to do with injured or oiled animals."
Visit Florida spokeswoman Kathy Torian said the release was intended to keep representatives up to speed on the threat. "It was never meant to be an official Visit Florida message for tourism in the state," she said. "It was not a message to go out to consumers."
The travel advisory on Visit Florida's website includes links to sites with information on state and federal responses to the spill and information on dozens of destinations across the state.
No Pinellas hotels are reporting room cancellations tied to the spill, Minich said. But more and more potential visitors are calling to ask if oil has washed up on the county's beaches, he said.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.