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

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010; F01

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."

To keep visitors abreast of daily or even hourly changes, tourism boards and travel industry entities are churning out a steady stream of information, including beach closures, health advisories and contact numbers for reporting tar balls and injured wildlife. For example, at VisitFlorida.com, the state's official tourism marketing corporation has created a "Florida Live" page that features an interactive map dotted with icons for hyper-local Twitter tweets and beach-cam views.

On an early evening last week, the image of Pensacola Beach near the Island Empress resort showed antlike figures, some very pink, swimming in the turquoise water or lazing belly-down in chairs. A boat with a rainbow-colored sail slowly progressed toward the edge of the screen. Guests also post photos of the various beaches around the state, with such "wish you were here" sentiments as, "Quiet morning stroll on Perdido Key. The Northwest Florida coast is clear."

"The states are not trying to get you to take a vacation in an unpleasant place," said Crowder. "They are trying to differentiate between the areas that are risky and the ones that are safe."

But because of widespread anxiety over the spill, misguided perceptions are frequently overshadowing the actualities. Unaffected areas are getting clumped with affected ones.

In an e-mail, Scott Hinkley, chief executive of Beachhouse.com, a directory of beach rentals, described a call he received from a homeowner in Clearwater Beach, Fla.: "He was sitting on his front porch, looking out at oil-free beaches and blue waters. He was amazed that he had started getting calls from vacationers wanting to cancel their vacations after hearing on the news that oil was already washing up in the beaches in Clearwater." To date, no oil has been spotted on or near the strand west of Tampa.

Steve Uelner, director of World Wide Country Tours in Wisconsin, said bookings for the Louisiana & Mississippi's Southern Charm tour, which explores Cajun country, have slowed to a trickle. "It's disheartening to see, because the places we visit are not affected," he said by e-mail, "and the folks we visit can really use the tourism dollars."

USA River Cruises agent Cindy Anderson said she has handled about 20 cancellations or rebookings of late, including a family of five who opted out of a July 4 trip to (inland!) Orlando. They will head to San Diego and Disneyland instead. The company's cruise schedule, however, remains intact: For the summer, the firm had wisely sent its boats north -- pre-spill.

(The major cruise lines are sticking to their regular routes and continue to depart from ports in Florida; Galveston, Tex.; Mobile, Ala.; and New Orleans. "We've seen no changes in itineraries, and our ships are able to maneuver around the problem, but we're continuing to monitor the situation with the states as well as the Coast Guard," said Lanie Fagan, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association.)

The Mississippi Gulf Coast area, which includes Biloxi and Gulfport, has suffered only minor incidents, but no recreational areas have been closed. However, local tourism officials say that restaurant sales are down 15 percent and beachfront hotels are reporting a cancellation rate of 50 percent.

"We are being painted with the same brush as Louisiana, Alabama and Florida," said Richard Forester, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But if you want a great value at a destination, now's the time."

The Knowland Group, a data firm in Salisbury, Md., surveyed 50 hotels in the gulf region. According to the results from June 2-3, 60 percent of hotels said groups had canceled because of the disaster, up 25 percentage points from the initial survey on May 3-4. "Most of the hotels are gravely concerned," said communications manager Megan Tate. "They'll be feeling the pain for months or years."

To attract visitors, travel suppliers are unveiling a host of incentives and specials. Many hotels, for instance, have loosened their cancellation policies; Sandestin, for one, shortened its seven-day advance notice to 24 hours. Others provide an "oil-free guarantee": Sterling Resorts, with properties along the Mississippi and northwest Florida coasts, offers guests a refund or the option to reschedule if the beaches are closed during their stay.

VisitFlorida.com's site lists "hot deals" such as free nights and resort credits. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, you can book two nights and receive a $75 gas card. ("It's not BP," quipped Forester.) Alabama Beach Vacation Rentals owner Erik Nist, who has received 193 cancellations since April, is discounting his rates by 15 percent through June and 10 percent in July and August.

"I can't fault someone from Colorado for not coming if they can't get in the water," said Nist, who lists rentals on Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan. "The air is fresh, and it looks like they cleaned things up. If they lift the water advisory, it'll be back to 'C'mon down.' "

Yet a bargain room does not alter the possibility that you could end up swimming in an oil slick or stepping in ooze during a sunset stroll.

"This is not something where you can lower the price and say, 'We're open for business,' " said Donna Quadri-Felitti, assistant clinical professor at New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management. "If you can't go in the water, it doesn't matter if the room is cheap."

In the aftermath of other recent disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, traditional tourism gave way to voluntourism. At this point, most of the organizations assisting with oil spill damage are requesting trained volunteers. But for those without hazmat expertise or wildlife aid experience, another subset of travel is surfacing. Pizam, the Central Florida college dean, calls it "sympathy travel"; Quadri-Felitti prefers a name with more spirit. "Solidarity travel is something that we'll see happen," she said, "because Americans respond with big hearts to places that are so special."

Leading the pack are such visitors as Mayor Kennington, who washed that oil right out of his vacation, and Morris, a soldier ready to do battle armed with sunscreen and an inner tube.

"This might be the most rewarding vacation you've ever had," he said. "If in some small way I can do my part, I'm going to."

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