Tourism in Gulf Coast states already taking a hit from oil spill

As the Deepwater Horizon oil slick looms in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles south of the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Northwest Florida coasts, the area’s tourism industry has already felt an enormous impact. Except for parts of Louisiana by the Mississippi River Delta, no oil has washed ashore in the threatened area, but already the hotels are swamped with reservation postponements and cancellations, sport fishing and scuba diving boats sit idly in marinas, and hundreds of restaurants and shops are burdened by empty tables and vacant aisles.

Some Pensacola, Florida, business owners say that all of the negative publicity is much worse than the actual oil spill, at least for now. Vacationers are uncertain, like everyone else, how big the oil mass will become, where it will go, and when it will hit land — if it ever does.

As long as uncertainty persists, beachgoers may continue to change their plans and avoid the coast. The trend could deal a devastating blow to the local and state economies, already on shaky financial ground after some of the slowest tourism seasons on record.

“Right now, the only real disaster in Pensacola has been the PR that we’ve got,” Jim Phillips, owner of MBT Dive and Surf, told England’s Telegraph.

Phillips says that his company is losing bookings for its charter boats, even though the beaches and water are as beautiful as ever.

“There is no oil here. Our beaches are still white and the water is emerald green. The slick hasn’t got within 50 miles of us, so it is extremely frustrating. Every time Pensacola is mentioned in connection with this it magnifies the nightmare for us,” Phillips said.

“Losing trips is bad but what’s really hurting us is not getting new bookings. In early May the calendar would fill up for the summer, but I’m not seeing that,” Phillips told the Telegraph.

Business owners in other counties along Florida’s pristine Northwest coast are facing the same problem.

Located about 95 miles east of Pensacola, Panama City Beach normally hosts six million visitors every year on its 27 miles of white beaches, but already there are signs of a slowdown. Hotels and vacation rental companies have loosened cancellation policies in an effort to retain bookings. Instead of a 30-day notice for cancellations, many companies are offering one-day cancellation notice.

Last year, 80 million tourists descended on Florida, bringing $65 billion in revenues.

In Alabama, Montgomery-based law firm Beasley Allen filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the restaurant industry for financial losses in such popular vacation spots as Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

The lawsuit alleges negligence and misconduct against defendants BP, Halliburton, and Cameron International for damages caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“Between the hurricanes and the difficult economic climate, these folks are depending on a strong vacation season to survive,” said Jere Beasley, founding shareholder of Beasley Allen. “This class action aims to protect their legal rights and ensure their day in court,” he said.

Last year, Alabama’s Gulf Coast beaches and attractions accounted for 35 percent of the state’s total tourism revenue and well as 36 percent of the state’s travel-related employment. Travel related expenditures in Alabama’s Gulf Coast region totaled $3.2 billion in 2009 .

In Louisiana, where vast stretches of bayou and coastal wetlands give the state its moniker “Sportsman’s Paradise,” any environmental damage caused by oil the slick could cost the state billions of dollars.

Louisiana is a world-class speckled trout and redfish fishing destination that is without rival in the U.S. Ducks and other water fowl occupy marshlands near the coast while offshore the water teems with cobia, dolphin and snapper.

Conservative estimates value Louisiana’s Gulf Coast tourism at around $20 billion. Approximately 24 million visitors visit the state’s coastal region every year, spending about $8.5 billion and supporting over 100,000 jobs. Nearly 8,000 people are employed in the state’s saltwater fishing industry alone, earning revenues of around $750 million.

While Mississippi’s multi-billion travel industry is also taking a hit, the state has 11 coastal casinos in its favor. There, bookings have not been affected at all by the approaching oil slick as they have been in other parts of the Gulf Coast.

“I think most people coming to the casinos realize they’re coming here for the casino experience,” Richard Forester, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, told Greenwire.

“Oil on the beach is not going to impact them that much. There’s no oil on the casino floor. No oil in the swimming pool.”

Still, coastal Mississippi residents and business owners fear they may be forgotten while New Orleans gets all the attention and assistance, which they say happened after Hurricane Katrina, which made a direct hit on Biloxi and nearby communities.