Panama City BeachWhat a difference a year makes, especially in the Gulf Coast.

That region -- tarnished, tar-balled, tainted and rendered a no-go zone by many travelers in the summer of 2010 -- has rebounded.

Gone are the oil slicks, the black sludge on shorelines, the hazmat patrols, the deserted beaches and the vacancy signs that stretched from the Florida Panhandle to the beaches of Galveston, Texas.

The BP Deepwater Horizon spill occurred on April 20, 2010, off the Louisiana coast, spewing an estimated 53,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was capped on July 15 and permanently sealed on Sept. 19.

The spill effectively shut down tourism in many coastal communities last summer.

Hotels and restaurants sat largely abandoned at the height of the spill, but a year later, the tourists are back, the beaches are crowded, restaurants have waiting lines and many hotels are charging pre-oil-spill rates again.

Charli Linn speaks for a lot of agents. She's a wedding planner by specialty and her agency, All the Details, in Fairhope, Ala., took a big hit last summer.

"I lost close to 50% of my wedding business last summer and fall because most weddings were planned as beach ceremonies," Linn said. "Barefoot brides didn't want to risk having their weddings ruined because of oil slicks and tar balls."

She refunded the disappointed brides who canceled.

It's a different picture this summer. The brides are back, the oil is gone, and Linn figures she will meet her goal of 50 weddings this year.

"The phones are ringing. Business is good, and we're all moving on," she said.

Dan Rowe, CEO of the Panama City Beach (Fla.) Convention & Visitors Bureau, echoed Linn's sentiments.

"The tourists are coming," Rowe said. "Our numbers are up, and we are on pace for a strong summer travel season."

To cope with the price of gas, many hotels are participating in the Giving Tanks promotion, which offers gas cards and discounts for vacation travelers, according to Rowe.

Farther west, Alabama's Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism CVB weathered the storm last year because of "a loyal customer base that supported us during the tough times," according to CEO Herb Malone.

By April, lodging numbers and revenue were up for the seventh consecutive month, Malone said.

Gulf Shores, part of Alabama's 32-mile-long coastline, was particularly hard hit, "but the beaches look beautiful and the visitors are back," Malone said.

One million fewer visitors hit the Alabama beaches last year, and in Mississippi, fewer visitors meant gaming revenues at the state's 30 casinos fell by $130 million, according to tourism officials.

Hotel occupancy along Mississippi's Gulf Coast topped 75% for Memorial Day weekend, the highest level in three years, according to Janice Jones, marketing manager at the Visitors Bureau.

And this year, the rooms were filled with tourists, not BP cleanup workers.

Although most of Florida's beaches never saw any crude oil come ashore, Visit Florida, the state's official marketing and promotion agency, went into crisis mode last summer "to establish an information platform to manage uncertainty, correct misperceptions and communicate with the state's tourism industry to create a unified and stronger Florida voice," said Chris Thompson, Visit Florida's CEO.

It worked. Tourism to the state in 2010 rose 2% over 2009, despite an extraordinarily challenging year for the tourism industry, according to Thompson.

First-quarter numbers reflected a 3.3% jump over the same period in 2010.

"Florida's tourism economy is rebounding well," he said. "The area impacted last year by the oil, or rumors of it, is clearly bouncing back, especially in Northwest Florida."

A State of the Gulf of Mexico summit, hosted by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi, Texas, is set for Dec. 4 in Houston to address the economic and environmental impacts of the spill.

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