Amid oil spill fears, would-be Gulf vacationers head elsewhere

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Where have all the Gulf Coast tourists gone?

Pick a spot, from Cape Cod to Costa Rica, Galveston to Gatlinburg, Hilton Head to Hobe Sound, and chances are good that you’ll find some, maybe even many, would-be Gulf Coast vacationers who switched their plans.

Summertime is prime time in the Gulf. For those who rely on tourism for their livelihoods, the BP oil spill could not have come at a worse time.

Louisiana’s Gulf region netted $1.36 billion of the state’s more than $8 billion in tourism revenue in 2009. Alabama’s beaches produced 25% of the state’s $9.2 billion in tourism dollars last year. Of the 19 million visitors to Mississippi from July 2008 through June 2009, 5.5 million traveled to the state’s three coastal counties.

In Mississippi, the spill could result in a $120 million loss to non-casino tourism in the state’s coastal areas this summer, according to a study released in June by the University of Southern Mississippi.

Travelocity reported that the average daily rates for hotels in the Gulf region continue to drop. Prior to May 15, hotel bookings for June in Panama City, Fla., averaged $122 a night; bookings from May 15 to June 22 averaged $96 a night.

Some vacationers who would have headed to the coast are instead driving north to Tennessee, the Carolinas and Virginia.

A looming problem for the Gulf’s tourism industry is that travelers who venture to new places might decide to keep returning there in subsequent years.

Parts of the Gulf Coast continue to thrive. Hotels and restaurants in New Orleans, many of which struggled after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, have had their best year since the storm, said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau. Downtown hotels have had fewer than 2% cancellations since the oil leak began.

The area around Pensacola, Fla., had also been doing well until June. Hotel occupancy was up by double digits in May over the same time last year, but then the tar balls arrived, effectively shutting down tourism until the beaches were cleaned.

Tourism officials predict that June numbers will show a 10% to 20% drop in revenue and occupancy, and July and August will also plunge, said Ed Schroeder of the Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Many Floridians tend to vacation in-state, which could account for some of the booking increases at Hilton Worldwide properties across the state, particularly on the Atlantic Coast, said spokeswoman Lisa Cole.

"Residents know their geography, they know how and where to check beach conditions and they’re flexible," Cole said.

Hilton’s Beach Satisfaction Guarantee program, valid through July 31, waives cancellation fees for guests booked at any hotel affected by the oil spill. The program covers 111 properties spanning eight brands.

"It’s been well received," Cole said. "We know that some travelers are hesitant to plan a Florida beach vacation this summer, so this gives them peace of mind."

Bookings are up year over year at Club Med Sandpiper Bay, between Orlando and Miami along the St. Lucie River, "but it’s hard to know if this is cause-and-effect from the oil spill," a spokesman said.

TENN-GatlinburgVacation spots north of the Gulf are reaping benefits from canceled Gulf Coast vacations although, as Walter Yeldell, tourism manager for the city of Gatlinburg, Tenn., put it, "It’s bittersweet because of the nature of this catastrophe."

Gatlinburg, gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has seen a "definite visitor uptick since Memorial Day," Yeldell said.

The destination, which annually welcomes more than 12 million visitors, launched a Travel Change Assistance Plan in late June. Designed to simplify vacation planning, it includes a Gatlinburg Game Changer Card, which offers discounts on attractions, hotels, restaurants and shops.

Destinations are walking a fine line this summer, attempting to lure vacationers without appearing to profit from the Gulf disaster.

The visitors bureau of Asheville, N.C., took a different tack with the launch of an online campaign to raise funds to help restore the Gulf Coast ecosystem through donations to the National Audubon Society.

Tourism partners in Asheville donated 10 cents per visit to the AshevilleTourismCares.com website, linked from the CVB’s main site. Through July 1, the fund totaled more than $5,000.

Hoteliers in Williamsburg, Va., created the online Go Williamsburg Gulf Relief Program to raise funds for relief efforts through donations. An additional 10% of the guest’s room rate in Williamsburg will go to the National Wildlife Federation.

"This collaborative program will give some financial aid to the lodgings that lost income due to the oil spill and support the relief efforts," said Chris Canavos, president of the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association.

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