By Associated Press Writer
updated 6/29/2010 2:28:54 PM ET 2010-06-29T18:28:54

Tourist businesses from Pensacola to Panama City are feeling the full financial crunch of the massive oil spill, as normally packed parking lots sat nearly empty over the weekend despite offers of discounts in an effort to drum up customers.

If not for the temperatures in the high 80s, the Florida Panhandle seemed more like the January or February tourist offseason than a weekend day in June.

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Tourism leaders offered discounts and promoted attractions away from the beaches, but it appeared they were losing the battle to keep vacationers as the gummy tar and black crude made its slow creep toward more beaches.

The normally stop-and-go traffic in the tourist town of Destin flowed easily without many of the hundreds of SUVs from Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and other Southern states that normally cram intersections and jam parking lots this time of year. Beachfront condominiums had signs welcoming walk-in customers, and the nicest hotels advertised vacancies.

Doug Duval, a tourist from Carmi, Ill., walked the beach in Destin early Saturday. A few tar balls were visible in the surf line, and a mechanical sand sifting machine cleaned the beach nearby.

"We almost canceled because of the oil, but probably as much of a reason we did come was a chance to see it one more time before it's spoiled for a decade or so," Duval said.

Hotels and rental agencies are doing what they can to salvage any of the summer season by offering discounts and refunding money if beaches are closed because of oil cleanup.

Newman Dailey, the largest vacation rental company in the Destin area, is offering discounts to people who stay five nights or longer through the July 4th holiday and a 100 percent refund if the county closes a beach for safety reasons.

Paula Bolton, a tourist from Oklahoma City, booked a condo with a group of friends for a week through the company but decided to leave a day early after tar washed up. The tar and the distraction of the cleanup crews made the beach less enjoyable for Bolton and her young daughters, she said. She praised the rental company, saying an agent refunded the night without complaint and further discounted the family's vacation because of their inconvenience.

On some July days before the oil spill, Jack Beck would rent all of his more than 70 kayaks, motor scooters and bicycles — taking in more than $1,500.00 day. But Beck had no rentals at his Destin beachfront business on Friday.

"During spring break, I was sold out for two weeks straight," he said. "The traffic is way off right now, down more than 50 percent."

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Beck worries things won't improve next summer.

"I don't know if I'll be here this time next year, and that is what is so sad," he said.

The kitschy Paradise Inn on Pensacola Beach, a drive-up motel known for its outdoor bar and live music, is usually packed with summer tourists and booked weeks in advance for both the holiday and the annual U.S. Navy Blue Angels Pensacola Beach Air Show the following weekend. The parking lot was mostly empty Saturday morning, and desk clerk Julia Rohlman said the inn had open rooms for the next two weekends.

"Some people are making reservations, but others are calling and canceling," she said. "It's not really packed at all. Our bar and grill brings out the locals, but that's about it."

Bull dozers, front-end loaders and hundreds of cleanup workers lined Pensacola Beach as few curious beachwalkers ventured near the water. Tractors and pallets of plastic sheeting for cleanup work filled beach parking lots.

Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said visitor numbers are down compared to last year but that beach businesses were persevering. Rowe didn't have a percentage of how much tourism had dropped in the area.

"We've had a few tar balls here, but we haven't seen any major impacts. We are continuing to tell people that our beaches are beautiful," he said.

The city is using digital billboards in Nashville, Baltimore, Houston and other cities served by a new international airport that opened in Panama City in the last month to show live pictures of Panama City Beach.

"We are being very straight with our visitors," he said.

For the first weekend since the summer tourist season kicked off Memorial Day, the 140-room Grand Cayman Hotel on Panama City beach wasn't fully booked Friday night, said desk clerk Denise Mock. Some of the rooms taken were booked by tourists who had planned to vacation on Pensacola Beach, but headed east to escape the heavier oil.

"Normally we will be full up, jam packed," Mock said.

Panama City Beach has seen tar balls, but not the heavy oil that has coated sections of Pensacola Beach 100 miles to the west.

Mock, a lifelong Panhandle resident, said Panama City Beach businesses were praying their beach doesn't get the thicker oil.

"I'm holding out hope those booms can keep it away," she said.

AP photographer Dave Martin in Destin, Fla., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Storm stalls oil cleanup efforts

  1. Transcript of: Storm stalls oil cleanup efforts

    WILLIAMS: Good evening from Pensacola Beach , Florida .

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Pensacola Beach, Florida): We have a major storm to contend with tonight behind us in the Gulf of Mexico . Not as a direct hit, mind you, not even close, but in ways that are already affecting us here. Alex is still officially a tropical storm . It's a huge, sprawling storm. And while it will make landfall near the Texas-Mexico border, it's already churned up the seas, even here in Florida . And that's bad news as long as the gulf remains full of oil. It has already hampered the cleanup. Here in Pensacola Beach there's oil on these beautiful white sandy beaches. You can see it from all the way up here in our balcony position. And there's a ton of it when you get right up close on it. But temporarily this storm will actually help Florida while it hurts Louisiana , those estuaries, due to that counterclockwise churn of the storm. We've got this whole region covered again this evening, beginning with NBC 's Anne Thompson where we were last night in Venice , Louisiana . Anne , good evening.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good evening, Brian . I am on a boat in one of the few calm spots along the coast of Louisiana tonight, the Venice harbor. The outer bands of Alex are stirring up the waters, winds and seas that today shut down the crucial cleanup operations along the coast. A few boom-laden boats headed out this morning, but little would be accomplished as winds of up to 30 miles an hour sent the gulf roaring in near where the Mississippi River flows out, bending the roseau cane and whirling the boom.

    This is the concern: If the boom can't hold back the water, it can't hold back the oil. Already here in the river channel you can see a slight sheen on the surface. With seas swelling to seven feet, all cleanup operations along the coast, skimming and booming, stopped for most of the day. Though drilling on the relief well should not be affected by the coming storm, contingency plans are in the works in case both efforts fail to kill the runaway well. The ideas include installing a permanent underwater pipeline to capture the oil.

    Mr. WILLIAMS ABEL (Abel Engineering President): It's absolutely a good idea to have a contingency because there are no assurances that the relief well will be absolutely successful.

    THOMPSON: John Wright is the intersection team leader on the first relief well. In an e-mail today to NBC News he said he's been involved with 40 relief wells, all successful and most on the first try. He's optimistic about this one, writing the nearly parallel approach "allows for tracking over a longer distance and makes the probability of an intersection more likely on the first attempt." In his first trip to the gulf since the spill, Vice President Joe Biden in New Orleans today offered moral support to those in the seafood industry, meeting with out-of-work fishermen who may never be able to go back to doing what they love. The Louisiana Department of Health reports that, since the spill began, 128 rig and cleanup workers have reported illnesses; 19 of them had to be hospitalized because of exposure to oil. The most common symptoms, nausea,

    headaches and coughing. Brian: Anne Thompson , starting us off there in Venice harbor, Venice , Louisiana . Anne , thanks.

    WILLIAMS:

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  4. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  5. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion

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