EMERALD COAST, Fla. The panhandle of Florida is seeing a significant drop in tourists this year not because of oil itself, but the perception that the national news media has created about the Gulf Coast region, residents say.
Many in the northwestern part of this state claim that the beaches are clean, unlike other areas such as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana that were more seriously affected by Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April.
Mark Bellinger, the executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Fort Walton Beach, says that tourists shouldnt be discouraged from visiting.
I swam in this beach every other week with the oil, he said.
Bellinger went on to say that many of the negative effects seen in other Gulf Coast cities such as foul smells and chemicals did not occur in Northwestern Florida. Tar balls from the oil spill were only found once and cleaned up in a few hours, plus the water is tested two to three times a week, his office said. Even still, large measures were taken to ensure the ecological well-being of the communitys bay.
For example, authorities constructed a chevron with underwater piping connected to air compressors that created a so called air curtain. The objective of the set-up was to keep pollutants off the beach and clean up those in the water.
Further, Bellinger cited helpful water currents that moved most of the hazardous pollutants away from this region of Florida.
The decline in tourist numbers has a significant impact on tax revenues. In the Emerald Coast region, businesses make 50 percent of their revenue in 100 days of summer. Bellinger said that the bed tax, a tax on accommodations, is down 17 percent so far and he projects it to go down to 27 percent by the end of the summer.
Some of the revenue losses are being compensated by BP. The oil giant provided a $25 million grant to the state of Florida, of which $750,000 went to this region. A second grant from BP, worth $1.37 million, was provided directly to Bellingers office to help fund a new marketing campaign to attract tourists.
Bellinger also praised BP for paying claims quickly.
Even though they did a bad job with the initial disaster, really, people really are trying to help, Bellinger said.
There is some sign of hope amid the crisis. Call centers reported a large increase in reservations soon after BP put a cap on the leaking well. Bellinger said that this is because everything is visual.
For the future, the theme is innovative thinking. Bellinger plans to provide incentives for tourists, such as debit cards worth $100 for every visitor and possible a lottery for a beach house. In short, he is optimistic for the longer term because Americans have a short memory anyway.
In many ways, disaster brings people together. Bellinger cited frustrations in dealing with the Federal government over who calls the shots. For hurricanes, there is a system for local and state authorities to take action. However, for this oil spill, local authorities had to get permission to take action from the U.S. Coast Guard, the State Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as BP.
There was no control, and we had to pull the trigger without the OK from the government, he said. The community took charge of the situation.
Not far down the beach from Bellingers office, residents in Destin also are feeling the effects from the oil spill. Tracy McCraw, marketing and advertising director at AJs, a popular area restaurant, says the business is running at 60 percent compared to last summer. McCraw said this drop in customers is because of the perception of dirty beaches as a result of the oil spill.
The customers that are dining at AJs are a different clientele that doesnt spend much money, mostly because of discounted rates that area businesses have implemented to attract visitors to the area, said McCraw.
Adding insult to injury, many area residents are dealing with the financial crisis in the midst of the oil spill. McCraw said the state of Florida is less able to assist financially in areas such as advertising, so residents feel their customer base is on fragile footing.
This region in northwest Florida moves forward with apprehension amid the remaining bleak summer season going into the usual slow winter months.
Chris Ballantine and Elliott Fryback are Durango High School graduates. Ballantine graduated from George Washington University in May. Fryback is a student at University of Nevada-Reno.