As Gulf spill oil nears Pensacola, a new sense of dread for Florida tourism

The Miami HeraldJune 4, 2010 

On Pensacola Beach this week, business picked up at the Radical Rides parasailing stand for all the wrong reasons.

"We had people come in who took off from work and took their kids out of school," owner Roger Bevan said. "They thought it would be their last two or three days on the beach."

With oil creeping close to one of Florida's most pristine beaches, such grim vacation forecasting has tourism officials across the state bracing for a marketing disaster even worse than a hurricane strike.

The big fear in South Florida: Tourists will see oil on one Florida beach, and assume the whole state's coast has been fouled.

"People's knowledge of geography, unfortunately, is very limited," said Abraham Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. "Especially the international visitors. They see Florida, and that's it."

To date, there has been no clear sign of South Florida hotels getting hurt by oil fears. While weekly hotel numbers are notoriously erratic, the prior week saw a surge in South Florida bookings as the Panhandle saw its reservations shrink.

A new report from Smith Travel Research showed occupancy levels up between 15 and 18 percent in Broward and Miami-Dade compared to the same time last year. But the Keys, seen as most vulnerable to oil contamination given its proximity to the Gulf, saw a more modest increase: up just 1 percent compared to 2009.

Meanwhile, hotels in the Panhandle report evaporating demand.

"This week, with the news, we've had a wave of cancellations," said Laura Lee, director of communications for the Pensacola tourism bureau.

Warnings of oil-soaked Florida beaches emerged soon after the April 20 explosion of a BP oil rig unleashed the country's worst environmental disaster. But favorable winds kept the spreading oil away from the Sunshine State for all of May. This week brought a shift in forecasts, with an oil sheen reported just 10 miles from Pensacola.

That shifted the media's attention to Florida -- Al Roker reported live from Pensacola on Thursday -- and worsened an already grim vacation season along Florida's Panhandle.

To read the complete article, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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