Gulf oil spill scares off some vacationers but prompts others to visit

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Shawn Kennington and his family were splashing around in the warm Gulf of Mexico waters off Florida's Pensacola Beach when they had to come ashore. Tar balls -- not seaweed strands, their original diagnosis -- had attached themselves to the back and legs of one of Kennington's daughters. Kennington washed the slime off.

The next morning, oil spill be damned, the family returned to the beach, to collect shells, build sand castles and relish their holiday.

"We are still able to enjoy the beach and water," Kennington, the mayor of Pittsburg, Tex., said by phone from the beach last week. "It's not perfect like it was in the past, but it's not a disaster. I think we made the right move coming down."

If the communities along the gulf, which is growing slicker by the day after the April 20 drilling rig explosion, could handpick their visitors, they would order thousands of Kenningtons -- and Morrises. Bruce Morris, who lives outside Fort Worth, did not vacillate over an upcoming trip to Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, 60 miles from Pensacola in Destin, Fla. The mortgage loan specialist was visiting, no question.

"I don't care if there are tar balls, tornadoes, hurricanes or hellfire. I'm going to be there," Morris said of his 24th stay at the luxury property. "It would almost be sacrilege if I didn't go."

This impassioned commitment to traveling to the beleaguered area may be unusual, but some think it hints at an incipient brand of oil-inspired tourism. Just as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina attracted waves of volunteer travelers eager to assist the communities affected by those disasters, the gulf could eventually attract its own form of sympathy travel.

But the key word is "eventually." For the moment, along with the Goings are a whole lot of Nots. After four days of tough conversations with his wife and two sons, Scott Maloney decided to cancel his family's trip to Orange Beach, Ala. They were set to fly down from Cleveland on June 19, until globs started appearing on the shores, forcing the Alabama Department of Public Health to issue a swimming advisory. "We really tossed and turned, not wanting to cancel," said Maloney. "But it's my only vacation of the year, and I wouldn't want to jeopardize it."

As the oil continues to fan out like the inky spray of a squid, travelers are grappling with a tough decision: visit or cancel. To date, glossy sheens and goopy tar balls have surfaced in parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and northwest Florida. Depending on the direction of the winds and currents and the arrival of a hurricane (it is the season, after all), the oil could drift east to Key West and even spoil the Atlantic. Or it could float west to Texas and Mexico. There are so many unknowns and uncertainties -- not what a traveler desperate for some beachy R&R wants to hear.

"Why would you spend money here when you can go to a pristine beach?" asked Abraham Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. "Why would you want to just sit at your hotel window and watch the spill?"

Before jettisoning your plans, however, consider a map of the South. At press time, evidence of the spill had appeared only in pockets along the coastline: by the mouth of the Mississippi River in southeast Louisiana and on the beach of Grand Isle State Park; in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan in Alabama; and at Pensacola and Perdido Key in northwest Florida. "You can walk a mile and not see any, and then you'll see a batch," said Ashley Chisholm, spokeswoman for the Pensacola Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's just in spots."

Considering the full length of the gulf shoreline -- 4,000 miles from the Florida Keys to Cabo Catoche in Mexico's Yucatan -- the affected areas amount to a small patch.

"A lot of people don't know the Gulf of Mexico well and think it's a giant pool of oil," said Larry Crowder, director of the Duke University Center for Marine Conservation. "Most of the areas in the gulf are safe, and you can still have a great vacation."

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