Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Tourism Industry Prepares for Worst, Hopes for Best

Tourism Industry Prepares for Worst, Hopes for Best

Northwest Florida’s largest industry unites to protect its greatest natural resource and its future

By Zandra Wolfgram

Originally published in the June/July 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine

More than 80 million visitors travel to Florida each year. Of those, 14 million flock to the Emerald Coast. Regionally, there are 3,200 restaurants along with 1,600 hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts and vacation rentals, which account for more than 80,000 rooms across the region.

All in all, tourism is a $60 billion industry responsible for $3.65 billion in tax revenue that flows annually into the state treasury.

With the threat of 3.5 million gallons of oil or more possibly staining the pristine beaches of the Emerald Coast, the potential impact is nearly immeasurable. Certainly, for the 12,158 workers who make their living in the tourism industry in Walton County alone, the threat is all too real.

British Petroleum (BP) — whose oil rig exploded and began leaking 50 miles off the Louisiana shore on April 20, 2010 — is not the first villain to cast a shadow along the sugar-sand beaches of Northwest Florida. Unwelcome visitors with names like Opal (1995), Ivan (2004) and Dennis (2005) have come and gone with gusto. And there are occasional wildfires or shark attacks that can impact the region and the industry.

Still, nothing can possibly compare in scope or scale to this man-made catastrophe. The inky shadow of an oil spill is ominous and far reaching — even before it has oozed onto our shore.

Communities have been preparing in advance. Booms are at the ready for key water access points such as the Gulf Coast East Pass and environmentally sensitive areas. Local residents and businesses have taken readiness classes and are using social media to rally spirits and manpower. An Oil Spill Academic Task Force, consisting of scientists and scholars from Florida State University working in collaboration with the University of Florida, the University of South Florida as well as the University of Miami and other private colleges, was formed to assist local, state and federal agencies in dealing with the spill and its aftermath.

Though under a state of emergency, at press time oil had not been spotted near or reached local shores. But the tourism industry is galvanized, ready to protect its greatest natural resource — the emerald waters and sugar-sand beaches that have taken this coast from a best-kept southern secret to a nationally ranked world-class destination.

“We are proud to say Walton County has developed and funded a detailed action plan, which provides for ongoing protection of our natural environment in case there are any impacts,” said Tracy Louthain, director of communication for the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC).

If oil is spotted offshore, barges will be deployed to spread hay, which clumps together with oil and makes it easier to remove. Second, 50,000 feet of belted silt retention fencing is available for deployment along the shores as needed. Along with hay, such fencing provides a second line of defense and aids in rapid clean-up. Finally, concrete jersey walls wrapped with silt retention fencing and lined with geo hay (a recycled synthetic fiber) will protect the region’s rare Coastal Dune Lakes.

The Walton County Commission has already set aside $1.5 million in funding for the plan. The county has also purchased hundreds of hay bales and begun deploying protective booms between the Gulf and Coastal Dune Lakes.walton_SO

Resorts, rental management companies and tourism offices along the entire coast from Pensacola Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau to the west and Bay County Convention and Visitors Bureau to the east are using email, websites and Facebook pages to stream current photos, video and blog posts about the status of the spill relative to the destination on a daily basis. ResortQuest is posting daily photos and streaming video, and many local businesses are linking to their site.

Some in the tourism industry say the first clean-up effort should focus on false reports and misconceptions. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA) held an impromptu press conference on May 7 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Pensacola Beach to set the record straight. “Phones are ringing for the wrong reasons,” said Carol Dover, FRLA president and chief executive officer. “Tourism is the economic engine of this state. We need to be more responsible about the messages we are sending. Florida beaches are beautiful and open for business.”

Legendary, Inc., Chief Operating Officer Bruce Craul echoed the sentiment saying, “The erroneous messages are hurting us, and when I say ‘us,’ I mean hotels, fishing, shops, restaurants, and so on. The trickle down is enormous.”

While Okaloosa County officials considered opening the fishing season earlier than usual, that wasn’t much solace for Capt. John Rivers, owner of Mega Bites Inshore Charter in Gulf Breeze, who said all of his bookings for June had already canceled even though he doesn’t take his charters within 100 miles of the affected area. “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.”

When asked if there were plans in place to counteract a worst case scenario, Dover replied, “FRLA is working with Visit Florida on marketing programs. We have 1,200 miles of coastline in Florida, second only to Alaska. Should it have an impact, we would lead visitors to other parts of the state.” Dover, who also sits on the board of Visit Florida, said she would recommend Visit Florida prioritize its annual $40 million marketing budget to promote in-state travel, a marketing campaign that now only gets about $500,000. BP meanwhile has promised the state $25 million to launch a national ad campaign.

Though Julian MacQueen’s Innisfree hotels line Pensacola’s beaches, the CEO is quick to point out the destination’s off-beach options. “We find only 20 percent of the people who visit us actually go into the water. People are here for the overall experience, incredible views, amazing sunsets, beautiful fishing opportunities and all the things Pensacola Beach brings.”

Whether the oil spill impacts the region or not, Simon Painter is banking on those visitors who are interested in alternatives to the beach. His company, Spirit Productions, is staging a multi-million dollar show in Grand Boulevard at Sandestin for the run of the summer. “Le Grand Cirque is a perfect example of a fun activity the entire family can enjoy that isn’t on the beach. …We’re committed to promoting tourism not just for Destin, but for the Emerald Coast as a whole,” he said.

ResortQuest, which manages 3,000 vacation homes from Gulf Shores, Ala., to Panama City Beach, is working directly with its guests to mitigate loss of business. Said CEO Park Brady: “We put up photos every day of our beaches to give them a visual reference of what our beaches are like. The threat is out there, but people shouldn’t worry about cancelling. We’ve modified our cancellation policy because we’re committed to being accurate and honest. You can cancel up to arrival or during your stay if the beaches close.”

Warren Butler, owner of Info Depot, a brochure distribution company that spans the Northwest Florida coast, is hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. “We have so many rack card clients who promote water-related activities, like pontoon rentals, jet skis and catamarans. I thought through what percent would go away, and I calculated 40 percent. If that were to happen, then things would deteriorate rapidly, because restaurants depend upon the tourism traffic. I was prepared to shut down three warehouses and two crew members. We are monitoring and asking the hotels every week how bookings are going. Many clients are running scenarios, but they still are in a wait-and-see mode.”

The Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce is not waiting. It is moving forward with Billy Bowlegs, a pirate-filled festival that celebrates the city’s legendary history. This statement appears on the end of a local press release for the event: “Have no fear of rumors regarding oil slicks or sludge silencing the sails. The pirates are a sneaky lot and if the waters are too treacherous, the headstrong Captain shall turn his ship into a road worthy vessel and the festival will continue as planned and nary a concern, our citizens will be ready to frolic and play as the breezes blow in on that fine day.”

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink wants to protect the state’s coffers from “corporate pirates.” “My concern is for the economic impact on Florida. The accident was caused by BP, which earns $15 to $20 billion a year. They will be held responsible for clean up and loss of business income of Floridians. I urge all those impacted to keep detailed and accurate records of lost business.”

Some locals see the oil spill as adding fuel to anti-drilling political fervor. Dave Rauschkolb, owner of Bud & Alley’s Gulf front restaurant in Seaside and founder of Hands Across the Sand, said he will not be satisfied with state politicos until oil drilling in Florida is forbidden. “Of course the beaches are open now, but I’m talking about the risk. No one industry should put an entire coastal economy and Gulf eco-system at risk. To open more oil and gas in Florida coastal waters will amplify that risk. This incident is proof enough.”

Dover said the oil spill has caused many who were formerly pro drilling to tip the other way. “We have 150 board members. At this point, though I haven’t surveyed the entire board, we (FRLA) are adamantly opposed to it, based on what I’m hearing.” Gov. Charlie Crist, after personally viewing the spill, is a high profile example of someone who changed his mind. He has called for a drilling ban and formed the Gulf Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force with a mission to protect businesses and determine culpability.

For Mike Chouri, general manager for the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, attitude is everything.

“The beaches were beautiful before, they are beautiful today and they will be beautiful tomorrow. In part, it’s about attitude, and we need to have a positive one.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.



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