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Oil skips most Florida beaches, but so do many tourists

The gulf spill has scared away visitors from areas far from any tainted coastline. One tourism official says it's all a matter of perception.

July 21, 2010|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Apalachicola, Fla. — Here the fish are plentiful and oil-free, the white sand beaches are clean and the oysters are fresh, pulled right from the water by fishermen who have worked the sea most of their life.

The only thing that's missing this summer: tourists.

"We've got fish — grouper, snapper, mullet, oysters," said Don Porter, whose fishing business on the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico lost $6,000 in a month. "But we can't sell it because people are scared."

Only 23 of Florida's 1,200 miles of shoreline are closed to fishing, and 90% of the state's beaches remain untouched by the BP oil spill disaster. But that doesn't mean Florida's $60-billion tourism industry is likewise unscathed.

"The oil scared the hell out of all my customers. I don't know — should I close the business I've been in for 40 years?" said bait and tackle store owner Ronald Crum, who spoke during a meeting with BP in Apalachicola, a laid-back Florida Panhandle town of Victorian houses and fishing boats on a grassy bay.

Known locally as Oyster Country because it produces 90% of the state's oysters, Apalachicola is 160 miles from oil-stained Pensacola Beach. Yet the Franklin County city is close enough that vacationers appear to think it's a risky venture.

Four of the state's 67 counties have been touched by oil, all on the Panhandle closest to the Alabama border. But in Franklin County, tourism is down 25% from last year, said Fran Edwards of the county's tourism bureau.

Statewide tourism revenue figures for this summer have not been calculated, said Kathy Torian, spokeswoman for Visit Florida, the state's tourism bureau. But anecdotally, many beach-related businesses report losses. And it's all a matter of perception, Torian said.

"When national media lumps together all four of the gulf states, that makes it look to the rest of the country as though Florida might be covered in oil," she said.

In response, Florida officials and state tourist industry groups started a BP-funded $25-million campaign in May to get the word out that the vast majority of the state's beaches are clean. First Lady Michelle Obama visited Panama City last week to help spread the word.

BP has declined Florida's request for an additional $50 million for another campaign.

The weakness in tourism adds to the pain of Florida's struggle with an 11.4% unemployment rate. The state depends on tourism for 21% of its sales tax revenue, and about 1 million Floridians are employed in the industry.

A study this month from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported a 61% to 80% chance of oil reaching within 20 miles of the coasts of the Florida Keys, Fort Lauderdale and Miami in the coming months, most likely in the form of weathered tar balls. Other areas of Florida have a low probability of oil hits, the report said.

Key West hotel occupancy and room rates are flat from last year, a disappointment to business owners who had hoped rates would be higher because of the slowly improving economy, said Andy Newman, spokesman for the Florida Keys and Key West tourism council. Sports fishing business in the Keys is down.

"We have not been physically impacted by the first tar ball or drop of oil," Newman said. "But we have certainly been impacted by an economic standpoint."

About 30 miles north of Apalachicola in Mexico Beach, a small town of hotels and cottages along Florida's scenic Highway 98, business has decreased 40% at the Gulf View Motel since the spill, said owner Charles Smith.

Smith, who lives on the beach, hasn't seen as much as a droplet of oil.

Larry Joe Colson, who builds homes and docks in town, said a client blamed the oil spill for cancellation of a $60,000 contract, even though the project was hundreds of miles from any oil.

Oysterman Shawn Hartsfield of Apalachicola said suppliers are begging him for his catch because oyster beds are closed in most other areas of the gulf.

"Is it good for business? Short-term, yes. Long-term, hell no," he said. His temporary success ultimately hurts his neighbors.

Nationwide demand has nearly doubled the price of oysters, said Keith Ward, who runs Lighthouse Seafood out of St. Marks on Apalachee Bay.

"I can't afford to buy it. The demand went up and the supply went down," he said. "I'm just about to close my doors."

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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