Gulf tourism faces daunting task: Restoring a battered image

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Workers at Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, La.Almost four months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill 115 miles off Louisiana's Gulf coast, shrimp boats have begun trawling nets instead of containment booms.



Shrimping is a $100 million industry in Louisiana, supporting 14,000 jobs, according to the state's Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

Will there be shrimp? Will distributors buy the shrimp? Will consumers eat the shrimp?

Two weeks ago, the first family licked ice cream cones, dined on fish tacos and dolphin-watched from the helm of a converted Navy launch on St. Andrews Bay in Panama City Beach, Fla., 175 miles northeast of the BP drilling rig that exploded April 20.

The questions weighing on the destination are: Will tourists buy into that scenario? And if so, will it translate into a business boom?

Is a photo of the president taking a dip in Gulf waters truly worth a thousand words?

Will a 27-hour "vacation" designed to show tourists that the Gulf Coast is open for business ratchet up consumer confidence enough to boost tourism revenues, which officials throughout the region have estimated are down between 20% and 50% this summer? (See story below on how Panama City Beach is handling the public's perceptions of the oil spill.)

The oil spill delivered three blows to the tourism-dependent coastal communities: the actual presence of oil; the misperception that oil was everywhere; and the uncertainty of what had happened to all that oil.

Early on, Mike Foster, vice president of marketing for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism in Alabama, declared, "The damage has been done -- both real damage and the damage caused by perception, even though we're not soaking and dripping in oil."

Click on image at right to view a chart of the public's perception of the oil spill,Perception became the wild card in how the oil disaster would ultimately affect the region's travel revenue. (Click on image at right to view a chart of the public's perception of the oil spill.)

The economic damage to the tourism industry is projected at $22.7 billion over the next three years, according to analyses conducted by Oxford Economics for the U.S. Travel Association.

"Perceptions matter a lot, and changing perceptions is key to mitigating the effects of the disaster," said Andrew Sacks, managing director of Oxford Economics.

'Roadmap to Recovery'

U.S. Travel called for a $500 million emergency marketing fund from BP to assist destinations in distributing correct information to travelers, who spent more than $34 billion along the Gulf Coast in 2008, helping to support 400,000 jobs.

The association also launched GulfTravelUpdate.com to centralize links to travel and recovery information for Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The Clean Harbors boomIt was all part of a 10-point Roadmap to Recovery that U.S. Travel presented to the government, arguing that the fund could reduce the economic impact of the oil disaster by $7.5 billion.

At 770 miles, Florida's Gulf coastline is the largest in the region. Tourism and recreation spending in Florida totaled $65 billion in 2008, employing 1 million people and generating about 21% of the state's sales tax revenue, according to Visit Florida.

Losses from the oil spill could top $11 billion and cost 195,000 jobs along Florida's Gulf Coast, according to a study by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness.

The study noted that although only 16 of the 180 beaches in Florida's western Panhandle have been affected by the spill, the impact of graphic images from the spill could affect travel decisions for the entire state, from Orlando's theme parks to South Florida's luxury hotels.

Visit Florida had serious concerns about the financial dent Florida could endure if tourism dropped off precipitously.

A June Ypartnership survey of 1,300 travelers indicated that 10% were uneasy about traveling to Florida as a result of the oil spill.

A later survey by Conde Nast Traveler revealed that 15% of travelers said their travel plans had been affected by the oil spill, although 60% said they would consider travel to the Gulf Coast within the next six months.

Travelocity's mid-August poll of 2,000 Americans found that many respondents believed that the oil had spread far beyond its actual reach.

One in four named the Florida Keys, where not so much as a tar ball has been sighted, as being among the destinations affected.

All sorts of studies are out there, and many reveal consumer confusion and misperception, which perhaps explains the significant cancellations in group bookings in more than 60% of Gulf Coast hotels this summer, according to the Knowland Group, a Virginia-based marketing firm.

Today, 672 miles of the coast are still tainted by, or at risk from, oil, mostly in the marshes, wetlands and estuaries of Louisiana, where the final tally of marine life destruction might not be known for years.

And now, microbiologists at the University of Georgia report the presence of small oil particles spreading eastward along the floor of the Gulf, threatening the ecosystem where the food chain begins.

All but two beaches along the Gulf Coast are open, some never closed, and the BP hazmat crews in yellow jumpsuits are pretty much gone now.

Fort Morgan cleanupThe red "no swimming" flags now signal riptides, not health advisories.

With Labor Day weekend approaching, tourism officials are working hard to salvage the fall shoulder season with offers of incentives, reduced rates, resort credits, special events, restaurant discounts and waived cancellation fees.

Restoring a battered image is the order of the day.

Will the tourists come next year? Can first-time visitors be persuaded to vacation in the Gulf next summer? Will repeat guests pack up coolers and kids and head on down to the Gulf they've known for years?

Too many photos of sheen, slicks and oil-soaked pelicans did the damage early on. Even as Key West mounted live webcams showing oil-free beaches, brown tar balls washed up on the sugary sand in Gulf Shores, Ala.

Cancellations came in on each tide for family reunions booked in Biloxi, Miss., and for beach weddings in Pensacola, Fla.

For condos, hotels, inns, souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, dive shops, caterers, scooter rentals, musicians, photographers and attraction venues, the sun set early this summer in the Gulf.

The geography of the region seemed to confuse the media as well as the masses.

While the oystermen and charter boat captains remained sidelined by closed fishing grounds in Louisiana, and Mississippi's Dauphin Island was ground zero for cable TV anchors, Mexico Beach near Apalachicola, Fla., remained clean, wide, white and empty.

The doomsday rumor that "oil is coming, oil is coming" crippled tourism in Galveston, Texas, for a couple of days and even emptied the beaches further south on Padre Island.

The few oil blobs that did wash up in Galveston were collected, examined, analyzed and found to be old bilge from cargo ships long since gone.

Tourists not familiar with the region were often left with the impression that every wave on every beach was bringing in the toxic stuff.

Video of the gushing well spewing out thousands of gallons a day for weeks was relentless.

The start of the summer tourist season along the Gulf coast coincided with the arrival -- or threat -- of oil, unexpected, unpredictable and deadly.

Tourism officials geared up to battle this enemy, but lacking crisis management plans to cover this particular type of disaster, it became a matter of too little too late for many communities and businesses.

Marketing strategies evolved on the fly and included deep discounts, waived cancellation fees, new events and live photos of beach conditions posted daily on websites.

A BP Sand SharkThe tourism industry in the Gulf this summer was in full-fledged crisis mode, juggling two missions at once: working to protect their shorelines from oil, while assuring tourists that their beaches were clean and the waters healthy.

Transparency became the only path available to reassure travelers. Sanibel and Captiva islands on Florida's west coast never saw a tar ball, but Alabama's 32-mile shoreline had oil on its beaches, which was reported via video on the tourism department's website.

"The greatest thing we stand to lose is not an overnight or a one-week stay but credibility," Foster said.

Tourism leaders from Louisiana to Florida asked BP for advertising money to counteract the negative news coverage from the oil spill and to persuade nervous tourists to travel to the oil-threatened shores of the Gulf.

Mississippi got BP to foot the bill for a $7.5 million-a-month, three-month national media campaign that shifted the focus from the state's oily beaches to its casinos, entertainment and family attractions.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist squeezed $35 million from BP for an emergency advertising and marketing blitz.

Alabama's Department of Tourism unveiled two TV spots, produced with a $25 million grant from BP, and later announced campaigns to shift focus away from the oil crisis to the state's musical roots.

Louisiana received $15 million to help promote tourism, with more expected.

An alliance of state, federal and local community officials launched the Gulf Coast Ready 4 Takeoff coalition on Aug. 26, designed to revitalize the coastal economy through diverse development projects.

Click here to view a slideshow on the cleanup efforts underway.

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