Florida Panhandle gets creative to lure tourists back after BP oil spill

Ten minutes is usually all it takes for Susan Estler to find an inviting beach scene, snap it with her iPhone camera, and blast it to digital billboards from Baltimore to Atlanta.

Each afternoon Estler, the vice president of marketing for the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, is charged with finding a postcard-like scene complete with emerald green waters, white sugary sand, sun-kissed beachgoers and, most important, not a speck of tar in sight.

By rush hour traffic those snapshots are displayed on roadside digital billboards with messages like "Our Coast is Clear," serving as a giant-sized "Wish you were here" for those caught in traffic or cruising long stretches of highway.

"We need to show that there are still miles and miles of beaches that haven't been touched by the oil spill," Estler said. "I'm hoping they say to themselves, 'Wow, everything looks fine there, let's go, Betsy!' "

Panama City Beach's digital campaign is just one example of how Panhandle communities are deploying new strategies to lure back tourists who have steered away from the Gulf Coast following the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

From organizing big beach-side bashes to tweeting time-stamped photos of tar ball-free beaches, Panhandle businesses are not only thinking about how they can salvage this summer's depressing tourist season, but how to brand themselves for the future.

Even when first lady Michelle Obama came to Panama City on July 12 to drum up support for Gulf Coast tourism, many of the Panama City Beach business owners she spoke to during a roundtable discussion focused on ways to minimize the future economic impact of the spill.

"The message today is looking forward," Dan Rowe, president of the Bay County Tourist Development Council, told the first lady. "To look at the Gulf Coast region and say, 'How do we build a strong economy?' "

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