Monday, 31 January 2011

Florida Worries About Effect on Tourism

MIAMI — Off Florida’s Gulf Coast, the seas are calm and the king mackerel are running. Capt. Joe Meadows’s telephone should be ringing with bookings for his 42-foot sport-fishing boat for the summer season. Instead, the calls are from reservation holders wondering if they should cancel.
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Demonstrators in Miami Beach carried symbolic black plastic tarps in a protest this week against offshore oil drilling.
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In a state already reeling from foreclosures and unemployment, those whose livelihood depends on visitors lathered in sunscreen are trying to persuade tourists scared off by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to reconsider.
For now, Florida tourism is living and dying in 72-hour increments. While no oil from the spill — sheen, slick, blobs or balls — has washed ashore on Florida beaches yet, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection is guaranteeing such conditions for only three days at a time.
Hotel operators in the Panhandle say they are frustrated by headlines forecasting a “black tide” hitting Florida beaches.
“People are acting like there is a huge oil slick that is going to wash in and cover the buildings,” said Dana Powell, general manager of the Paradise Inn in Pensacola Beach. “But right now, we don’t have any oil and we are still playing.”
Then again, there is cause for concern at her 55-room hotel on a barrier island off the Florida Panhandle.
“We are all terrified because they really don’t know how big it is, where it’s going to go, how bad it’s going to be,” Ms. Powell said. “It is a great unknown.”
Scientists have warned that crude oil leaking from the blown well off the Louisiana coast is drifting toward an area where it could be swept into the Florida Keys and the Atlantic Ocean within the next two weeks.
The state’s Department of Tourism has tried to alleviate any public concern about the beaches by posting information about Florida’s destinations on its Web site in real time with beach Webcams, Twitter feeds and photos. Gov. Charlie Crist said he had secured $25 million from BP, which was leasing the oil well that exploded, to finance the tourism advertising campaign after an initial $25 million went to disaster preparation and response.
Still, bookings to destinations on Florida’s West Coast declined around 15 percent in the three weeks after the spill, compared with the three weeks before the spill, said Katie Deines Fourcin, a spokeswoman for She said the trend was slightly worse for the Panhandle region.
Many travelers have already decided to avoid the area for now.
Robert Baldari, 60, and his four brothers had chosen Key West for a week of scuba divingand dining for their annual vacation, but they postponed their trip this week.
“We’ve been following the oil slick,” Mr. Baldari said. “But when it started moving, we decided it was too much money to spend if we weren’t going diving.”
Under normal circumstances, most hotels in the Panhandle would be fully booked by now for Memorial Day weekend — the traditional start of the peak summer tourism season. This year, plenty of rooms are still available.
“The pace of new reservations is down 70 percent,” said Julian MacQueen, chief executive of Innisfree Hotels, which operates four hotels along the Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast.
The same situation is playing out hundreds of miles away at Florida’s southern tip. When asked if new reservations were down at her Key West hotel, Carol Wightman, owner of the Marquesa, laughed and said, “Have you heard the phone ringing?”
There is disagreement among scientists, government and industry experts about the potential risk of oil pushing onto Florida’s coastline. Peter Ortner, director of theCooperative Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Studies at University of Miami, said he would be surprised if a surface spill made it to the Florida Keys, Miami and Fort Lauderdale beaches.
“I’m feeling better and better about it,” he said. “It’s more than three weeks later, and even the leading edge is now older. Older is better, because the most toxic stuff evaporates off and readily disappears.”
But the spill could still have a substantial effect on fish populations, Dr. Ortner said.
“I am concerned that a lot of species’ larvae — snapper, lobster, blue fin tuna, dolphin, billfish — are out on the edge of the Gulf Stream and loop,” he said, referring to the powerful current that carries warm water in a clockwise motion from the Yucatán Peninsula into the northern Gulf of Mexico, then south of the Florida Keys and out into the Atlantic. “Newborns and larvae are much more sensitive that adults. They are vulnerable.”
Damage to those populations would be more bad news for Captain Meadows and the $5.2 billion sport fishing industry. “That would wipe out my business for a few years,” Captain Meadows said.
There remains one other looming threat: Hurricane season opens June 1.
“All bets are off if a hurricane blows across the shelf,” Dr. Ortner said.