updated 5/6/2010 2:11:20 PM ET 2010-05-06T18:11:20

There are no tar balls on Florida beaches. No sheen has washed ashore anywhere in the state. Forecasters are predicting it will be five days or more before any oil from the Gulf spill could arrive on Florida's shores — and even then they say the damage may be minimal and isolated.

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But that reality isn't the perception among some would-be out-of-state tourists, who have been calling seaside resorts this week from the Panhandle to the Keys, fearing the beaches are about to blackened and their vacations ruined. Some hotels are reporting 10 percent cancellations.

"We've got a horrible problem with rumor control," said David Halstead, the state's emergency management director. "We are not two or three days away from it hitting the shore. We need to dispel those rumors ... The beaches are still open."

Kathy Torian, a spokeswoman for Visit Florida, the state's tourism bureau, said the agency has put an advisory and interactive map on its website to remind visitors how big the state is and that even if oil stains one beach there are plenty more. Tourism is the state's No. 1 industry, bringing $65 billion to the state.

"This is going to be a hyperlocalized story, as this goes on. So at any given time, let's say a few weeks from now, when and if there really is oil on a beach somewhere, it could be impacting only 50 yards on a single beach," she said.

The spill began April 20 when a drilling rig owned by Transocean Ltd. and operated by oil giant BP PLC exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers. It has been spewing up to 200,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf, and the spill now covers thousands of square miles. The state said the northeastern edge of the slick was about 50 miles off the Panhandle coast on Wednesday and about 200 miles from the Loop Current, which could sweep oil south to the Keys.

Along Gulf Coast beaches Wednesday, hotel owners reported getting calls and some cancellations from future guests wanting to know if the oil had arrived.

Les Burke, a broker with Pensacola Beach Sales who manages about 40 homes, town house and condos, says he's had 10 cancellations. Most are under an existing policy that allowed them to apply their deposit toward the same unit within a year if they cancel.

"That has abated most of their frustrations," he said.

But since Saturday, he says, his company has been following lead of some others in the area and not giving refunds if the customers cancels within 45 days. The tourists can buy travel insurance but it doesn't cover spills.

Patricia Hardiman, chief sales officer at Southern Resort Vacation Rental, said her company has received a few cancellations and many phone calls from worried travelers.

"They want to know what is happening, 'Can I still come to the beach?'" said Hardiman, whose company rents 700 condos and beach homes from Port St. Joe to Pensacola Beach. "We're being positive and saying there's no oil, but we've had a few that were adamant and canceled. You can't fight them if they don't want to come."

Tourist John Burton and his family moved their vacation to Panama City from Gulf Shores, Ala., which is nearer the spill's edge. But he warned that he wouldn't come back if the area is ruined by oil.

"We come to the beach to play in the water, walk on the beach at night, catch crabs. Take that away, and there's no reason to come here," said Burton, 61, of Birmingham, Ala.

Further south near Tampa, John Agliano, assistant general manager of the Sheraton Sand Key resort on Clearwater Beach, said the hotel has fielded a "handful" of calls from people wondering if the spill has been any effect on there. Not yet, but he is worried.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed here," he said. "If they don't do something to stop it, or the current shifts, it could be a very serious issue if it does approach our coast."

Agliano said booking are "holding steady" for the next couple of weeks. Some people have called asking if the beaches are still going to be oil-free a few weeks from now.

"It's pretty hard for us to answer that," he said.

Even further south in the Florida Keys. Jackie Harder, president of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, said locals are keeping their eyes on the spill, but maintaining the laid-back attitude the island chain is known for.

"It's so far away," she said of the spill. "As my dad would say, 'Don't cry before you're hurt.' "

All told, Harder said, the chamber has received fewer than a dozen calls from people wondering about the spill. She said she's heard or no cancellations due to it, but a lot of confusion.

"Can you tell me where the oil spill is in the Keys?" she said one caller asked an operator.

Spencer Slate, owner of Captain Slate's Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo, said he continues to get new bookings. The only calls he says he gets regarding the oil spill are from past customers wondering if what they hear on the news is correct.

"They turn the news on and they think the world's coming to an end," he said. "We face the same oversensationalism with the damn hurricanes. We get the same calls and the same questions."

Slate said he worries if another part of Florida is affected by the spill, however, that out-of-state travelers will not understand how far away the Keys are.

"The minute Panama City Beach or Pensacola get soiled, the whole world will think that Florida is gone," he said. "In our business, the tourists' perception is half of it."

Bill Kaczor in Pensacola, Mitch Stacy in St. Petersburg and Matt Sedensky in Key Largo contributed to this report.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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