Along the Gulf Coast, where tempers, anxieties, outrage and frustrations rose with each gallon of oil gushing up from the ocean floor, BP this week stood for "Boiling Point."
State and local tourism organizations, lodging associations, attraction operators and event planners struggled to manage travelers’ expectations while keeping them informed, as the ever-growing oil slick moved inexorably toward the white-sand beaches touted in tourism ads.
From a tourism standpoint, Florida, with 2,276 miles of beaches and tidal shoreline, is the state most economically vulnerable to the massive slick. Tourism last year accounted for a hefty $65 billion of state economic activity. Collectively, coastal Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi do $8.5 billion in tourist business each year.
While Florida hotels and tourism interests reported a healthy Memorial Day weekend, things had begun to change by midweek when the slick moved to within seven miles of shore and inched toward the western Panhandle, the barrier islands and beaches near Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach and Panama City. (Click on the map for a larger view of the state of the oil spill as of June 2.)
"We launched a statewide marketing campaign over Memorial Day, and hoteliers reported many last-minute bookings that really helped pump up the numbers," Gov. Charlie Crist said in a June 2 interview on CNN. "We were pleased with the turnout."
Crist initially asked BP for, and received, $25 million to fund a three-month campaign to help combat negative publicity caused by the spill.
"That money was used to promote tourism if the oil slick didn’t foul our beaches," Crist said. "Now I have asked BP for more money, because the slick is headed toward our state."
The governor said he would continue to ask for funding, depending on the track the slick follows, and he encouraged other Gulf Coast governors to follow suit.
Crist said Florida’s Gulf communities might have to edit ads touting clean beaches to provide up-to-date status reports.
"We have to work together to stem the tide and protect the Gulf states," Crist said.
The website for the Marco Island Convention and Visitors Bureau on Florida’s west coast posts daily updates on the spill. The destination, which has dubbed itself the Paradise Coast, includes Naples and the nearby Everglades.
For now, it remains far from the slick, but "we want to remind and reassure visitors that not all of Florida is impacted," said communications manager JoNell Modys.
What’s happening in Panama City Beach in Northwestern Florida mirrors what many beach communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are doing.
Panama City Beach, 27 miles of shoreline with more than 21,000 guestrooms, launched a multimedia campaign "using cutting-edge technology to inform visitors of the current situation," said Dan Rowe, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"We’re using [digital] billboards, and we upload a new beach photo or video each day," Rowe said. The message: "Our beaches are clean and our water pure."
But Rowe said the destination has contingency plans if "the oil fouls our beaches, because it is critical that we get the correct information to the traveling public."
Beach-cleanup crews are on standby, and area hotels are offering their own flexible, penalty-free cancellation policies.
Thanks to last-minute bookings, the Florida Keys also enjoyed a strong Memorial Day weekend, despite a rash of early cancellations stemming from speculation that the Keys would be hit by the spill.
Looking forward, Key Largo dive operator Spencer Slate said business had been slowed by cancellations in June, July and August, though no oil had been detected.
However, oil debris did reach Alabama’s Dauphin Island and parts of the Mississippi shoreline. Dauphin Island, battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is a narrow barrier island located three miles south of the mouth of Mobile Bay in the Gulf of Mexico.
Though island beaches were littered with tar balls right after Memorial Day weekend, tourism officials confidently reported that "they can be cleaned up quickly."
New Orleans hosted its first-ever Oyster Festival June 4 and 5, but with 37% of the Gulf now off-limits to fishing, event organizers were not optimistic there would be a second event next year.