PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — Efforts to cap the oil well are under way. But even if they are successful at stopping the gusher, the tourist-dependent Florida Panhandle now faces the hurdle of luring visitors back to a coastline that still could see tar balls wash ashore.
Businesses along the emerald-water coast fear the technical know-how being used to plug the runaway Gulf of Mexico well won’t be enough to salvage its peak tourist season, with images of oily beaches still fresh in travelers’ minds.
The entire Panhandle has reported sluggish business even though its exposure to the spill has mostly been limited to its western end, near Pensacola. Even there, beaches have been mostly clean for the last two weeks, with scattered reports of tar balls and other oil.
But even with the flow stopped, cleanup remains, and winds and currents could still bring the mess back to Florida.
“To try and inject confidence into the market between now and the remaining 45 days of summer will be almost impossible,” said Julian MacQueen, owner of a Hilton and a Hampton Inn on Pensacola Beach.
MacQueen estimates he’s lost $3 million so far, between his Pensacola Beach hotels and two others in Orange Beach, Ala. He says he’d like to think that once the massive leak is fully stopped, tourists will return in force, but he doesn’t believe it will happen.
Even though recent reports of oil activity on Pensacola’s coastline have been relatively minor, visitors are still subjected to backhoes and bulldozers parked on beaches, workers in hazmat suits taking water samples and, at night, crews with headlamps scouring the sands with shovels and sifters, looking for tar balls.
Farther east, at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, marketing manager Laurie Hobbs said it will be impossible to make up the loss of business, but that she’s optimistic loyal customers will return.
“We had a very successful spring and we would have continued that momentum, but we will never see the full momentum that we saw going into spring. We’ll never see it this summer,” she said. “But we’ll just turn our marketing engines to try and regroup. We can get people back to the beach and we can get people back to where they love.”
Destin and Fort Walton Beach tourism officials have been appealing to the families that visit summer after summer to continue their traditions. The “Support Your Beach” campaign highlights the Gulfarium marine park, along with golf, back-bay fishing and dining.
Michelle Kelly, spokeswoman for the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said while progress being made in stopping the oil flow brings a sense of relief, that campaign would continue.
“The best way to help everyone out is to still continue to come down here, still keep your vacation plans,” she said.
Tourism accounts for 10 percent of the economy in Escambia County, the western tip of the Panhandle that’s suffered the worst oil contamination, said Rick Harper, a University of West Florida economist. Dependence on tourism steadily builds east along the coast to Panama City Beach and Bay County, where it contributes almost 40 percent to the local economy during the summer peak, according to Harper.
The spill came at the worst possible time for the Panhandle. Coming off a weak 2009, this year was showing signs of improvement, and businesses hoped to capitalize during the summer, when the majority of tourists visit.
In Pensacola, July alone accounts for up to one-fourth of the year’s business, said Ed Schroeder, director of the Visit Pensacola tourism office. The full extent of the sluggishness of business this year is not yet known, but Schroeder said June saw “massive cancellations” and declines of between 20 percent and 40 percent.
Despite this, Schroeder believes the capped well means everything can be turned around.
“It is absolutely not too late to get this summer salvaged. It is only mid-July right now and what is happening for the millions of people who are accustomed to coming to this beach is they haven’t let go of us,” he said. “There is absolutely every opportunity for this coast to recapture its customers.”
In place, Schroeder said, is the Pensacola area’s biggest marketing presence ever, and one that has shifted from focusing on its beaches to the region’s other attractions — a change seen throughout the Panhandle.
Walton County tourism officials are advertising “25 Reasons to Go Anyway,” a list that includes taking a class at an art gallery, spas, wildlife tours along nature trails and standup paddleboarding or canoeing on inland bodies of water.
For now, much of this coastline of sugary-white beaches is simply waiting and hoping the worst is over.
“We’re holding our breath,” said Shelley Yates, marketing manager at The Fish House restaurant in Pensacola. “But we’re very optimistic.”