There’s a bright spot amid the darkening, spreading muck in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the oil slick’s negative impact on tourism, passengers, lots of them, are flying into Florida’s newest airport, just a few miles north of the beaches that line the Gulf of Mexico in the state’s northwest corner.
Northwest Florida Beaches Airport near Panama City Beach opened May 23, a month after the oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf.
"We started out strong, and we’ve continued that way," said Randy Curtis, the airport’s executive director. "I know there have been some area hotel cancellations, but our passenger traffic has exceeded expectations."
Southwest offers eight daily flights from Houston, Orlando, Baltimore and Nashville. Delta offers eight flights from Atlanta and three from Memphis on Delta Connection.
The airport waived landing fees for both carriers for the first 12 months, "but they have to maintain service for that time period," Curtis said.
Southwest confirmed that it has seen high demand for its flights into the new airport as well as strong load factors on flights serving all seven of its Florida destinations.
BP has become the guest from hell on the Gulf Coast this summer, as hoteliers struggle to hold on to bookings during their peak period by slicing rates and cutting cancellation fees.
Though tourism officials have been working hard to calm fears of ruined vacations and avoid alarming tourists, they also have to be upfront about Frisbee-size oil clumps in the sand.
It’s a tricky balancing act, and everyone is in spin mode. The emergence of tar along the coast has shaken the tourism-dependent coastal communities of Florida.
Consumers’ perceptions about what remains open are harming business more than the tar balls on the sand.
"We’ve seen a decline in hotel bookings to destinations on the Gulf, even those that have not been affected by the spill," said Orbitz spokeswoman Jeanenne Tornatore. "Travelers are worried where the oil might go."
Indeed, the problem is that no one knows where the muck is headed. Its track depends, to various degrees, on wind, weather, trajectory and currents.
President Obama sounded very much like a tourism official during his nationwide address on June 15, reinforcing the message that much of the coastline is open for business and urging wary visitors not to forsake their summer travel plans.
The president touted the region’s beaches and crab cakes, even while citing a Mississippi hotel owner’s lament of a 40% falloff in bookings.
The U.S. Travel Association cited Obama’s "open for business" message as helping "protect the Gulf Coast’s 1 million travel industry jobs and $94 billion in annual spending," said Roger Dow, U.S. Travel’s president and CEO.
Numerous hotels, travel sites and destinations now offer "clean-beach guarantee" programs that include refunds or credits for future vacations.
Hilton Worldwide’s Beach Satisfaction Guarantee, for example, waives cancellation and early-departure penalties and offers alternative accommodations through July 31.
"We recognize that some travelers are hesitant to plan a beach vacation to the Gulf Coast this summer due to the uncertainty around the impact of the oil spill on the region’s beaches," said Paul Brown, Hilton’s president of global brands and commercial services.
"We encourage travelers to continue to plan their vacations to the Gulf Coast and South Florida this summer and enjoy the hundreds of miles of beautiful beaches that remain unaffected by the oil spill."
Orbitz has a similar plan running through July 31 with 120 Florida hotels that guarantees a refund if a government agency closes a beach or declares it dangerous within 20 miles of the property. It plans to expand the guarantee to beach hotels in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in coming weeks.
The problem is not so much with cancellations as with reservations, according to Grover Robinson, chairman of the Escambia County Commission in Pensacola, Fla.
"I’ve talked to hoteliers," Robinson said. "The phones just aren’t ringing."
Weeks ago, Key West, miles from the nearest tar ball, was the first destination in the state to launch a clean-beach guarantee. That was followed by a feature added to www.fla-keys.com on June 14 designed to correct Gulf spill misconceptions.
Andy Newman, Florida Keys Tourism Council spokesman, said, "It shows an accurate status of our tourism offerings with a one-minute, date-stamped video, updated weekly, showing visitors on our beaches and in our waters."