|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 5, 2010 --Even without oil touching sand on Florida's Panhandle, Jim Phillips watched business at his Pensacola dive shop plunge 75 percent over fears of soiled Gulf waters. At Port St. Joe, wedding coordinator Lynne Carr is trying to calm brides panicked over their dream beach weddings possibly being ruined by the stench of petroleum.
Fear among tourists may be expanding quicker than the oil spill off the Gulf Coast, already costing the region millions of dollars as its peak summer tourism season approaches. And with some scientists imagining oil eventually hitting South Beach, anxiety is following that hypothetical track up Florida's East Coast.
For many in Florida's $60 billion tourism industry, the spill is a more frightening version of a hurricane threat, when fears of impending havoc leave hotel rooms empty and beaches barren on picture-perfect days.
The grim novelty of the country's worst oil spill since 1989 has the Sunshine State's tourism leaders arguing over the best way to face the crisis and remind vacationers that -- at least for the moment -- all of Florida's coastline remains open for business.
"Let's not jump to conclusions before the event has even happened," said Andy Newman, spokesman for the Florida Keys tourism bureau. "When I hear messages out there saying the Keys is basically going to be devastated, that's not appropriate."
At MTB Divers in Pensacola, Phillips finds himself on the front lines of both an ecological and marketing debacle.
Already, he has lost l7 trips through June -- each costing between $100 and $150 a person. That includes six German divers scheduled to make a trip Saturday. "Pretty much when they came out with the first alert that said 'Pensacola,' we started to get calls," he said. "I wouldn't say we're crippled. But we're hurting."
The crisis threatens to rob the Panhandle of a marketing coup as a leading beach arbiter rethinks his short-term affection for the area. Stephen Leatherman, a Florida International University professor best known as "Dr. Beach," said he may drop a Panhandle location from his annual Top Ten list because of the spill.
"I'm sitting here pulling my hair out. I can't hold out much longer. It comes out Memorial Day weekend," Leatherman said of the unnamed beach. "Those are world famous beaches in the Panhandle. They call it the Emerald Coast because the water is green and the sand [is] lily white. It's arguably the finest whitest sand in the world."
"Obviously," he continued, "if the oil hits any of these beaches, they're not going to be on the list."
Carr, an owner of White Sands Events, had hoped to avoid the brunt of the oil-spill scare. On Monday, the wedding planner reported only one call from a bride nervous about her beachside wedding ruined by tarry sand. But the worried inquiries picked up pace considerably Tuesday, she said.
"They're panicking," Carr said. She said photographers and other bridal vendors in the St. Joe area have started promoting venues off the beach in an effort to keep couples from fleeing to other destinations.
That shift was evident in Myrtle Beach, S.C., this week, as the tourism industry reported a bookings surge from anxious travelers.
"It started Saturday," and has continued "non-stop," said Ruthanne Ellis, director of the North Myrtle Beach Visitors Center. Visitors are "afraid and they want to go ahead and set up their plans, so they will have a place for vacation with their families for the summer.
ResortQuest, a Miami-based vacation rental company with operations in South Carolina, booked $40,000 worth of reservations at its Myrtle Beach properties last weekend, much of it from vacationers adjusting their travel plans away from the Gulf Coast, said Craig McGee, director of operations for the Myrtle Beach office.
As tourists mulled their summer plans, Florida's tourism officials debated the best way to influence those decisions. The fight mirrored familiar tension that builds whenever a hurricane looms: how much information about a potential catastrophe is too much information?
Visit Florida, the state's tourism board, came under fire this week after sending its European offices information on how visitors should cope with an oil spill. The advisory, prepared by Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, included warnings against swimming in contaminated areas or exercising strenuously outside.
A travel trade publication in London quoted a Visit Florida reprentative warning the spill could "jeopardize" Florida's tourism industry. "That really belongs in the tool box of our competitors," Broward tourism director Nicki Grossman said of the Visit Florida advisory. "The reality is only by our own hand can we create a concern among our potential travelers."
Visit Florida officials defended their approach Tuesday afternoon on a conference call with local tourism leaders, saying they had an obligation to keep tourists informed.
"We'll continue to make it as positive -- while still being honest -- as possible," said Kathy Torian, Visit Florida's corporate communications manager.
William Talbert, president of the Greater Miami tourism bureau, urged Visit Florida to borrow a playbook from Miami's post-Andrew tourism marketing plan and broadcast footage of sunbathing vacationers. "The more live beach cams you can throw around the world," the better, he said on the call.
In the Florida Keys, the oil spill played a familiar role for the island chain -- a faraway menace, churning off the coast, scaring tourists.
"To some degree, this is the same as a hurricane," said tourism director Harold Wheeler. "People see the Keys inside the forecasters' cone of a hurricane that is coming."
Last week, the Keys tourism bureau's website added a section on updates about the oil spill and the slick's progress toward -- or lack of it -- toward Florida. The hope is to train would-be tourists to stay informed through the site, then feel confident when there's good news to report.
Marlin Scott, a charter captain in Key West and host of the "From the Water" radio show, reports a growing list of anxious customers.
"I'm now getting e-mails and tentative cancellations," said Scott, owner of Fish Monster Charters. "They say if it hits Florida beaches, they are going to cancel."
Ashok Sawe, owner of the Palm Tree Villas hotel on Florida's Anna Maria Island off Bradenton, has no immediate oil worries, with the spill thousands of miles away. But he questions how many of his European customers will focus on the geographic details as they read about an historic environmental catastrophe.
"I'm not worried about the Floridians because they can distinguish between different parts of Florida," he said. "I'm worried about those who don't know Florida and just say, 'It's easier to avoid it.' "
This story was supplemented by dispatches from the following McClatchy Co. reporters: Audra Burch and Cammy Clark of The Miami Herald; Jennifer Rich of the Bradenton Herald; and Jake Spring of the (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) Sun News.
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