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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

Emotions – and tears – often overtake residents as they try to grasp the breadth of ecological and economic damage by the unabated wellhead deep beneath the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

"Our beaches are sacred," explains Tom Campanella, who sits on the Santa Rosa Island Authority.

To be sure, some business owners are fighting, perhaps futilely, against the differing perceptions of the water quality, including the possible presence of kerosene dispersants that BP is using on the geyser. "[Forget] the tarballs, we're going diving," one dive shop promised on a roadside sign.

Others blame the media for focusing on the negative, driving tourists away. "I'm all for being optimistic, but you also have to be realistic," said Rob Williams, a talk show host on AM 1620 in Pensacola, in response to a caller who took issue with his strong descriptions of the "tarball attack" that hit Pensacola Beach Tuesday night.

The spill hasn't completely destroyed the Gulf summer. At Santa Rosa Island's Paradise Lounge on Tuesday, one happy beach hipster's mop of bleached hair nearly matched the plumage of the cockatoo sitting on his shoulder, as the two entertained a small crowd.

The few tourists to brave the beach Tuesday included an oil company executive, who did not want to give his name, but who said he wasn't worried about his children swimming in the water. A few hours later large tar puddles washed ashore in volumes that dwarfed clean up crews' ability to remove them.

Shane Howard and his fiancee, Sarah Richman, watched the oil come ashore Wednesday morning, and Ms. Richman burst into tears at seeing an oil-blackened crab struggle in the surf.

But the wedding is still on. "We're going to have it on the other side of the dunes, so you won't see the oil," Mr. Howard said. "Humans adapt and overcome, and that's what we're having to do."

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

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