Tracking the spill: On Fla. Panhandle, the battle over perception

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Dan Rowe, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach CVB in the Florida Panhandle, described the resort's city fight against "the perception of oil on our beaches" as a "daunting task and an uphill battle."

Rowe backs an idea endorsed by the U.S. Travel Association that BP set up a $500 million emergency marketing fund for Gulf destinations.

"It will help protect the economy and help folks maintain their livelihoods, but I hope the money is driven down to local communities so we can tell our stories," Rowe said.

Lodging revenues in June in Panama City Beach were down 20% over June 2009.

"July traditionally is our peak month for visitors. Even though there is no oil here, visits are definitely down, rates are depressed and stays are shorter," he said.

To encourage longer visits, the CVB will launch its Real.Fun.Awards program this weekend. Visitors who stay three nights at participating properties get a $50 American Express gift card; four nights earns a $100 gift card; five-night stays earn a $200 gift card. The promotion is valid through Aug. 31.

"This is spending money. We're grateful for those visitors who continue to demonstrate their loyalty to our destination. There's a sense of urgency down here. Businesses are telling visitors not to let the summer pass without coming to Panama City Beach," Rowe said.

On her recent visit to Panama City Beach, First Lady Michelle Obama described Northwest Florida "as a national treasure," Rowe said. "She was blown away by the beaches and water and the authenticity of the people here."

The Obama family plans a weekend vacation somewhere on the Gulf Coast in mid-August, according to a White House announcement.

Meanwhile, all of the Gulf Coast is keeping a wary eye on the track of Tropical Storm Bonnie this weekend. The storm already has closed down cleanup operations and could push offshore oil slicks closer to the coast.

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