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Gulf Coast guarantees vary widely. But are they enough for tourists?

From the Panhandle to Sanibel Island, Gulf Coast hotels are trying to reassure wary tourists with a simple promise: If BP oil slimes our beach, you don't have to pay.

Only it's not that simple. And some lodging experts say the no-oil guarantee is more public relations than shrewd crisis management.

More than 200 hotels, motels and condo rental firms on Florida's west coast are covered by some sort of oil-related policy through the end of July. They carry names such as the Natural Beach Guarantee, the 100% Oil Spill Guarantee and the Zero-Risk Vacation Guarantee.

Details vary widely. The deal for 28 properties promoted on the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website promises a free first-night stay if customers "arrive to find our pristine beaches affected by the oil spill in any way.''

The No-Oil Guarantee at Plaza Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach - up to three free nights at no charge - applies as long as oil washes up in front of the hotel during your stay.

The Sirata Resort on St. Pete Beach won't give away free rooms. But if oil is anywhere on St. Pete Beach or oil-burning operations degrade air quality below federal standards, guests can cancel reservations up to 6 p.m. on their arrival date or leave early without a penalty.

The online travel agency Orbitz will refund any unused nights if a government agency closes a beach within 20 miles of your hotel or declares it dangerous. More than 100 hotels on Florida's west coast, including 42 in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, are covered.

Policies "are all over the board,'' says D.T. Minich, executive tourism director for Pinellas County.

Hoteliers like guarantees for a simple reason. In most places, the BP spill is far off the coast with little chance of coming ashore in the next month.

"If luck's with us, this is a low-risk deal,'' said Bill Priakos, general manager of the Barefoot Beach Resort in Indian Shores.

But do guarantees give potential visitors enough comfort to take even the small risk of a ruined vacation? Minich doesn't think so, at least not for out-of-state visitors.

"The big issue is the air travel,'' he says. "They don't want to get stuck with five airline tickets that are nonrefundable.''

That can be of particular concern for faraway visitors. Airfares from Germany and the United Kingdom, which combine to provide a big chunk of Florida's overseas tourists, can cost a family a couple of thousand dollars or more. Those overseas visitors, who on average spend more and stay longer than their domestic counterparts, also have a lot of other options when deciding where to vacation.

Executives at the Tradewinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach decided nothing short of refunding all lost vacation expenses would persuade an undecided customer to take a chance, said chief operating officer Keith Overton. "We believe the ability to move people to come here is limited,'' he said. "You have to do it all or nothing.'' But with 86 percent of rooms booked for July, that was too much of a gamble, said Overton.

Susan Haslem, an assistant general manager at three Treasure Island motels, says their guarantee - 6 p.m. cancellation on day of arrival and refund of prepaid room charges - gives customers confidence to book trips. Most are Floridians who drive from home, she says.

At Barefoot Beach Resort, reservation agents aren't having as much luck. Only a little more than about half the callers who hear the first-night-free guarantee book a room. "That incentive doesn't seem to be enough,'' says Priakos, the general manager.

Steve Huettel can be reached at