Image: MOther and son on Fla. beach.
Dave Martin  /  AP
Julie Riekhof carries her son Christian, 2, down the oily beach in Perdido Key, Fla., Friday.
By
updated 7/2/2010 3:29:33 PM ET 2010-07-02T19:29:33

Fireworks displays have been canceled. White-sand beaches that should be crowded with sunbathers are instead dotted with cleanup workers, booms and sand-sifting equipment. Normally packed hotels are trying to fill rooms ahead of what is a crucial weekend for beach businesses.

Across the oil-stained Gulf Coast, it's going to be a glum Fourth of July.

"We got hit right between the eyes in June. July is starting to look like a total disaster," moaned hotel owner Julian MacQueen, who said his 181-room Hampton Inn in Pensacola Beach, Fla., should be booked solid but is only 70 percent occupied, even with rooms reduced from $225 a night last year to as little as $150.

And those who make their living from tourism have a longer-term fear: that the vacationers who find other destinations this year will never return.

At Souvenir City in Gulf Shores, Ala., owner Paul Johnson said the number of customers walking through the giant shark's-mouth entrance of his store to buy such things as T-shirts, flip-flops, hermit crabs, seashells and other beach kitsch is down by about half from last year.

"People who have been coming here for 20 or 30 years and went to Destin or Myrtle Beach or wherever may say, 'Hey, we went there and really liked it. That's our place now,'" Johnson said, referring to spots in Florida and South Carolina.

The stakes are high for the hotels, motels, restaurants, souvenir shops and ice cream stands along the beaches of what is affectionately known as the Redneck Riviera.

"The Fourth of July is a key, key component," said Chris Thompson, president and CEO of Visit Florida, which promotes tourism in the state. "It's one of the most critical weekends," when many businesses make the bulk of their summer tourism income.

Tourism officials say there have been numerous hotel cancellations across the coast. About 25 percent of all rooms in the Pensacola Bay area were still vacant on Friday, said Ed Schroeder, director of the convention and visitors bureau. Last year, hotel occupancy was 100 percent at the start of the holiday weekend.

The oil spill will probably ruin the holiday for Kenny DiNero, who runs a dockside bait and tackle shop in Ocean Springs, Miss. Normally on the Fourth, the waters off Mississippi are full of boats. People fish and stop on islands to swim and have cookouts.

This year, "all the islands are closed because of the spill. There won't be any fuel sold. There won't be any ice sold. There won't be any bait sold. And there won't be any damn fishing," DiNero said. "Normally on the Fourth I do $10,000 to $15,000 in sales. This weekend I'll be lucky to do $500."

  1. Click here for related content
    1. Oil-eating Whale or ‘white elephant’?
    2. Millions of birds set to fly into Gulf oil mess
    3. NYT: Katrina trailers revived for Gulf oil disaster
    4. Red tape keeps La. marsh cleanup on hold
    5. Newsweek: The oil spill by the numbers

Many businesses are fighting the misperception that every stretch of beach is coated in oil.

Pensacola Beach is doing its best to make its sands presentable. About 1,300 BP employees and county crews are working overnight to clean whatever oil washes up during high tide. By most mornings, the tourist sections are largely clean, with only orange and brown stains in the sand left behind.

Visitors like Laura Barbier of Dallas said they have been pleasantly surprised. She said her family has been visiting the Gulf Coast every summer for 15 years. They almost didn't come this year because of the oil.

"I'm glad we did," she said, stepping on a gooey tar ball that rolled in with a wave. "It's not as bad as the news made it sound."

In Alabama's Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island, there isn't much to celebrate this Independence Day, with tar staining the beaches and livelihoods on the brink. Dauphin Island's new public beach has been converted into a staging area for the cleanup. Both communities have canceled their fireworks displays.

"With this happening, tourism is dead. We just didn't feel the whole atmosphere was conducive to a fireworks show," said Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier. "People just aren't in the mood."

He added: "Maybe when this is over we'll have something to celebrate. Maybe Labor Day?"

Melissa Nelson reported from Pensacola Beach, Fla. AP writers Brian Skoloff in Pensacola Beach, Fla., and Tom Breen in New Orleans also contributed to this report.

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

Video: Oil chases away some Gulf holiday tourists

  1. Transcript of: Oil chases away some Gulf holiday tourists

    KATE SNOW, anchor: Along the Gulf Coast , this would ordinarily have been a fun-filled weekend for vacationers heading to the beach for the Fourth of July weekend. But with coastal communities reporting their regular holiday crowd down 60 to 80 percent, residents and visitors are finding very little to celebrate. NBC 's Mark Potter reports now from Gulf Shores , Alabama .

    MARK POTTER reporting: For the Mitchy family visiting from Birmingham , Alabama , for the holiday weekend, finding this much oil on the Gulf Shores ' beach was a major shock.

    Mr. KIRK MITCHY: It's just something that really makes your heart hurt for the people that have to live off of this.

    POTTER: Kirk and Kelly Mitchy had hoped their children could still swim here, but seeing the mess quickly changed their minds.

    Ms. KELLY MITCHY: It's going to take years for them to figure out really what are the, you know, health risk of all this.

    POTTER: For eight-year-old Jack Mitchy , who really wanted to go in the water, it was a big disappointment.

    Mr. JACK MITCHY: There's so many people to blame, but it's just so sad. I was looking forward to going in there, but now I just -- heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking to me.

    POTTER: In past years the Gulf Shores beach would be jammed now. But this year, there are very few people here.

    Mayor ROBERT CRAFT: Yeah, people aren't coming.

    POTTER: Gulf Shores ' Mayor Robert Craft says a poor Fourth of July turnout is an economic disaster.

    Mayor CRAFT: Fourth of July weekend is the most important weekend of the year for us. We make all of our money between Memorial Day and Labor Day , Fourth of July being the peak. And there's nobody in town.

    POTTER: In previous Fourth of July holidays, crowds filled The Hangout , a popular tourist spot. But this year, business is down nearly 70 percent.

    Mr. SHAUL ZISLIN (The Hangout Owner): This is it. This is -- this is the money time. Without this, there is no -- there is no getting through the off season.

    POTTER: It's a loss felt by many other coastal towns along the gulf as incoming oil chases most of the tourists away. Mark Potter , NBC News, Gulf Shores , Alabama .

Photos: Month 4

loading photos...
  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
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  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

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments