Businesses Already Hurt, Regardless of Oil Locale

Florida remains the white-sand wonder that has attracted tourists for decades, but even the threat of oil soaked beaches or the waters that sculpt them is costing Florida businesses millions, representatives of Florida hospitality industry said Thursday.

Faced with a bump in cancellations brought on by fears that a BP oil spill will make landfall along Florida’s Panhandle, motel owners, charter fishing captains and restaurateurs called on tourists to keep their vacation plans intact while calling on government officials to keep the pressure on the company to make due on earlier promises to pay “all legitimate claims.”

What’s unclear is what “all legitimate claims” means.

“It’s easy for a hotel to say this is how many rooms canceled, but how does a cleaning company estimate how many clients they didn’t get because of this,” said Meg Peltier, President of the Gulf Breeze Chamber of Commerce.

Of more immediate concern, however, is what to do about economic bleeding that has already occurred. Imprecise media reports and popular misconceptions are making matters worse for the state’s top industry that will suffer regardless of whether oil meets the shore.

Kevin Begos, a seafood industry spokesman in Apalachicola, said the spill has definitely affected the marketplace, even though there's no oil anywhere nearby yet. He said seafood dealers in his area have seen orders drop considerably.

“Right now, it's mostly fear, because oil hasn't come here yet,” Begos said. But that doesn't mean it isn't being felt in the wallets of fishermen, oystermen and shrimpers who work the Apalachicola Bay.

“The question becomes would BP pay for if it impacts your business even if oil doesn't come here,” said Begos, who is the director of the Franklin County Oyster & Seafood Task Force.

Other marine-based businesses are seeing the same thing. Capt. John Rivers, owner of Mega Bites Inshore Charter in Gulf Breeze, said earlier this week that all of his bookings for June have already canceled despite the fact that he doesn’t take his charters within 100 miles of the affected area. In the charter business, word travels fast and in this case that’s not helping matters.

“This could easily cost me all the rest of my of 2010 business,” Rivers said. “If the oil damages the nurseries, 2011 won’t be any better. I’m already looking for work.”

Meeting in Pensacola Beach Thursday, hospitality industry officials said they’re doing all they can to bring skeptical travelers back while assuring others to keep their Florida plans.

Some timeshare and beach rental companies are waiving the customary 14-day deadline vacationers need to cancel reservations without losing their deposits. Some are also now posting daily photos to show potential clients how the beaches look each day. The strategies appear to have reduced the rate of cancellations.

“Being honest with our customers is working,” said Park Brady, CEO, ResortQuest, a booking agency with thousands of listing in the Panhandle.

Lawmakers say the spill is having an impact on areas not immediately affected by the oil spill.

Foreign tourists, especially, are skittish because of the time and expense of international travel.

Also, to tourists not familiar with Florida geography, what happens in the Panhandle may be indiscernible from what happens in Orlando, though the two destination are more than 400 miles apart.

“For foreign tourists, when they hear something is happening in Florida, it’s happening in Florida,“ said Rep. Rich Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg. “It’s not happening just in the Panhandle or just in southwest Florida.”

Anticipating further job losses, Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday requested $50 million in federal funds to pay unemployment claims brought on by the oil spill. Though BP is ultimately responsible, Crist urged President Barack Obama to approve the measure so the state can help assist affected workers while it waits for the company to reimburse.

“Such engagement is urgently needed to ensure a comprehensive state and federal response,” Crist wrote in his request for federal aid.

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