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Oil spill may take a toll on Gulf tourism
Holiday weekend a big one for beach towns
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Whether the vacationing hoardes that the Gulf states rely on so much for tourism dollars will show up this Memorial Day weekend is largely guesswork, but there doesn’t seem to be many local travelers worried about the impact of the BP oil spill just yet.

“My customers haven’t voiced any concerns about it,” said Jeanette Williams, owner of Williams Holiday Travel.

At Wide Travel in Gainesville, travel agent Chris Rundell noted that she hadn’t had any clients looking for packages in the Gulf states even prior to the oil spill, which began with an April 10 explosion at an offshore oil drilling platform 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana.

Wide Travel offers many cruise deals, and while the spill could potentially affect cruises setting out from Mobile or Tampa, there have been no issues so far, Rundell said.

Louisiana tourism officials, who have already seen some oil come ashore, say their business definitely will suffer this Memorial Day.

Most of the coastal region in the state remains unaffected. But some areas have been closed to fishing, and one public beach has been closed.

In Mississippi, officials have mounted a public relations campaign to inform travelers that the beaches are still untouched and offshore gambling resorts remain open for business, said Richard Forester, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

After getting the message out, “We have seen a slowdown in the number of cancellations,” Forester said.

Officials still have no idea what to expect as far as visitors next weekend.

“It’s a real crap shoot right now — it’s very very hard to say,” Forester said. “A lot of it depends on what happens.”

In Alabama, where the Gulf Coast region generates about 35 percent of all tourism revenue for the state, reservations were on target with last Memorial Day until the oil spill, said Edith Parten, a spokeswoman for Alabama Tourism.

“Now it’s down slightly,” she said.

But the oil has not yet made an impact on the state’s beaches, including Gulf Shores Orange Beach, the most popular.
“Nothing has hit our shores,” she said. “Our beaches still have white sands.”

All Gulf states were given $15 million each for tourism money from BP, in addition to $25 million for spill mitigation. Some states have used it for advertising campaigns and live webcams focusing on their beaches.

“We want to get the word out,” Parten said. “You can still get out on the beach and have a good time.”

Florida tourism officials were unavailable for comment Tuesday, but AAA Auto Club South reports that the state has seen minimal disruption.

“We have not seen any significant cancellations related to the oil spill,” said Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South. “We still expect a lot of people to come and enjoy the pristine beaches.”

If oil eventually came ashore in Florida and forced many of its beaches to close, it would cost the state $50 million to $100 million per month in lost tourism revenue, according to University of Florida tourism researcher Stephen Holland.

“If a substantial proportion of the beaches on the Gulf Coast were to be essentially closed to swimming because of oil sludge impact, I think it would have a noticeable effect on the state economy,” Holland said.

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