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Has BP oil spill canceled summer on the Gulf Coast?

Cancellations rates have reached 80 percent at vacation properties along some parts of the Gulf Coast, including Pensacola Beach, due to the BP oil spill. Summer just isn't the same if you can't go in the water, tourists say.

By Staff writer / June 23, 2010

President Barack Obama and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist walk along Casino Beach on Pensacola Beach, Fla., June 15, as they visited the Gulf Coast region affected by the BP oil spill.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Pensacola Beach, Fla.

Santa Rosa Island, the home of Pensacola Beach, is known as the "Las Vegas of Beach Weddings," but 65 percent of planned weddings on this historic island have been scrapped this summer as the Gulf oil spill begins to sully the beaches on a larger scale.

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Brides-to-be throwing out plans that often take more than a year to prepare because of the oil is emblematic of a stunning fact that many Gulf Coasters are struggling to understand after the solstice: Summer as they know it is effectively canceled.

"I'm not sure what to do with this summer," says Maresha Foster, a teacher who usually spends most of her summers on the beach – and in the aquamarine Gulf waters.

IN PICTURES - Staff shots: Response to the oil spill on the Gulf Coast

Escambia County, Fla., where puzzled tourists stared at large puddles of oil on the beach Wednesday, is advertising as far north as Rhode Island, with slogans such as "The Gulf looks inward." "Theres plenty of other things to do," says Claricia Lake, who lives in Gulf Breeze. "We're managing as best we can."

But the beaches and the cooling waters of the Gulf are the essence of summer for the perhaps 20 million tourists who flock there every summer. With some upscale vacation properties claiming they're seeing 80 percent cancellation rates, the economic effect is "immeasurable at this point," says Florida State University tourism expert Mark Bonn.

A conservative 50 percent cancellation rate estimate means 10 million won't summer on the Gulf – a disaster for Gulf resorts, condo owners, beach rental managers, and employees.

Moreover, tourism experts say cancellation numbers are likely to rise as the oil begins to have a greater impact on places like Pensacola Beach, where oil relief workers far outnumbered tourists Wednesday.

Regional advertising campaigns that play up tests showing the water is safe have been thwarted by a point made by one resident, "You can't say in the same sentence that our waters are safe, but don't eat the fish – it just doesn't work."

"In today's consumer mindset, safety is paramount, and tourists are answering the question of how safe it is to get into the water with their wallets at this point," says Mark Bonn, a tourism expert at Florida State University. "This is just the tip of the iceberg."

While short-term tourism losses are significant, officials here worry about what the break in the summer routine will do to families who have been making the journey to the beach for generations. Corporate and conference business is also a big question mark, says Mr. Bonn.

The mounting tourism losses are sure to challenge hopes by the new manager of the $20 billion escrow account, Ken Feinberg, to process claims quickly and accurately. In preparation for hold-ups in compensation, the Small Business Administration told a group of islanders gathered at a meeting Tuesday that they should start applying for low-interest loans now – since the situation isn't likely to improve soon.

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