By Laura Figueroa
Monday, July 26, 2010; A04
PANAMA CITY BEACH, FLA. -- Ten minutes is usually all it takes for Susan Estler to find an inviting beach scene, snap it with her iPhone camera, and blast it to roadside digital billboards from Baltimore to Atlanta.
Those snapshots of emerald green waters and white sugary sand are displayed with messages such as "Our Coast is Clear," serving as a giant-size "Wish you were here" for those caught in traffic or cruising long stretches of highway.
"We need to show that there are still miles and miles of beaches that haven't been touched by the oil spill," said Estler, the vice president of marketing for the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I'm hoping they say to themselves, 'Wow, everything looks fine there, let's go, Betsy!' "
Panama City Beach's digital campaign is just one example of how Panhandle communities are deploying new strategies to lure back tourists who have steered away from the Gulf Coast after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.
In Florida's $60 billion tourism industry, the Panhandle stands to lose a substantial amount in tourism dollars. From Panama City to Pensacola, merchants report business being down by 30 to 50 percent on any given week.
Though BP has given the state a $25 million block grant to promote area beaches, local business owners say it's going to take more personal touches than 15-second TV and radio spots to lure back leery tourists.
"We know it's hard to drown out all the negative images people are seeing," said Nathan Holler, owner of the Dog House Deli in Pensacola Beach. Looking to thank tourists and locals who have stuck it out on Pensacola Beach, Holler and four other beach-shop owners joined forces to organize a weekly pot-luck style jamboree on the beach.
On a recent balmy night, about 30 locals and tourists mingled on the beach, drinking beers donated by the liquor store across the street, and taking paddleboard lessons donated by the local watersports shop.
In Destin, hotel and restaurant employees don "Thank You" buttons and rarely miss an opportunity to give a hearty "thanks for choosing Destin" greeting to those spending money on the beach. It's part of a gratitude campaign launched by the local chamber of commerce.
The appreciation campaign is mirrored in Panama City Beach, where businesses have pooled resources so that everyone from hotel employees to community leaders can randomly dole out $25 gift certificates to visitors.
But even now, as oil remains about 100 miles west of Pensacola and large stretches of tar-stained beaches have been cleaned, many hotels and restaurants remain largely empty during this peak season.
"Even if the beach has been cleaned up, that's not the image they play on the news," said Peter King, a board member of the Perdido Key Area Chamber of Commerce.
"They show footage from a couple of weeks ago, or people see the pictures coming out of Louisiana and think that's us," King said. "That leads to a big misconception about the condition of our beaches. That's why it's important for us to try to get people out here, so they can see it for themselves."
-- McClatchy Newspapers