Image: Panhandle tourism
Michael Spooneybarger  /  AP
Even if the oil gusher is stopped, the tourist-dependent Florida Panhandle now faces the hurdle of luring visitors back to a coastline that still could see tar balls wash ashore.
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updated 7/20/2010 1:30:56 PM ET 2010-07-20T17:30:56

Efforts to cap the oil well are under way. But even if they are successful at stopping the gusher, the tourist-dependent Florida Panhandle now faces the hurdle of luring visitors back to a coastline that still could see tar balls wash ashore.

Businesses along the emerald-water coast fear the technical know-how being used to plug the runaway Gulf of Mexico well won't be enough to salvage its peak tourist season, with images of oily beaches still fresh in travelers' minds.

The entire Panhandle has reported sluggish business even though its exposure to the spill has mostly been limited to its western end, near Pensacola. Even there, beaches have been mostly clean for the last two weeks, with scattered reports of tar balls and other oil.

But even with the flow stopped, cleanup remains, and winds and currents could still bring the mess back to Florida.

"To try and inject confidence into the market between now and the remaining 45 days of summer will be almost impossible," said Julian MacQueen, owner of a Hilton and a Hampton Inn on Pensacola Beach.

MacQueen estimates he's lost $3 million so far, between his Pensacola Beach hotels and two others in Orange Beach, Ala. He says he'd like to think that once the massive leak is fully stopped, tourists will return in force, but he doesn't believe it will happen.

Even though recent reports of oil activity on Pensacola's coastline have been relatively minor, visitors are still subjected to backhoes and bulldozers parked on beaches, workers in hazmat suits taking water samples and, at night, crews with headlamps scouring the sands with shovels and sifters, looking for tar balls.

Farther east, at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, marketing manager Laurie Hobbs said it will be impossible to make up the loss of business, but that she's optimistic loyal customers will return.

"We had a very successful spring and we would have continued that momentum, but we will never see the full momentum that we saw going into spring. We'll never see it this summer," she said. "But we'll just turn our marketing engines to try and regroup. We can get people back to the beach and we can get people back to where they love."

Destin and Fort Walton Beach tourism officials have been appealing to the families that visit summer after summer to continue their traditions. The "Support Your Beach" campaign highlights the Gulfarium marine park, along with golf, back-bay fishing and dining.

Michelle Kelly, spokeswoman for the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said while progress being made in stopping the oil flow brings a sense of relief, that campaign would continue.

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"The best way to help everyone out is to still continue to come down here, still keep your vacation plans," she said.

Tourism accounts for 10 percent of the economy in Escambia County, the western tip of the Panhandle that's suffered the worst oil contamination, said Rick Harper, a University of West Florida economist. Dependence on tourism steadily builds east along the coast to Panama City Beach and Bay County, where it contributes almost 40 percent to the local economy during the summer peak, according to Harper.

The spill came at the worst possible time for the Panhandle. Coming off a weak 2009, this year was showing signs of improvement, and businesses hoped to capitalize during the summer, when the majority of tourists visit.

In Pensacola, July alone accounts for up to one-fourth of the year's business, said Ed Schroeder, director of the Visit Pensacola tourism office. The full extent of the sluggishness of business this year is not yet known, but Schroeder said June saw "massive cancellations" and declines of between 20 percent and 40 percent.

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Despite this, Schroeder believes the capped well means everything can be turned around.

"It is absolutely not too late to get this summer salvaged. It is only mid-July right now and what is happening for the millions of people who are accustomed to coming to this beach is they haven't let go of us," he said. "There is absolutely every opportunity for this coast to recapture its customers."

In place, Schroeder said, is the Pensacola area's biggest marketing presence ever, and one that has shifted from focusing on its beaches to the region's other attractions — a change seen throughout the Panhandle.

Walton County tourism officials are advertising "25 Reasons to Go Anyway," a list that includes taking a class at an art gallery, spas, wildlife tours along nature trails and standup paddleboarding or canoeing on inland bodies of water.

For now, much of this coastline of sugary-white beaches is simply waiting and hoping the worst is over.

"We're holding our breath," said Shelley Yates, marketing manager at The Fish House restaurant in Pensacola. "But we're very optimistic."

Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.

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

Video: Oil leaking from cap on ruptured well

  1. Transcript of: Oil leaking from cap on ruptured well

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: For a couple of days now there's been no oil coming out of that BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico . It's not the permanent fix, we've been told. That can only come when those relief wells break through. But it's been a great relief knowing new -- no new oil, at least, is flowing in on top of the three-month supply that has already ruined parts of the gulf. But then over the last 24 hours came the first hints of trouble, word of other leaks from somewhere down there. The question is, is there a problem with the pressure inside that same well? We begin our reporting tonight with our chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson , in Venice , Louisiana , again this evening. Anne , good evening.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good evening, Brian . It's been a tense 24 hours for BP engineers and government scientists, who've disagreed on how extensively to monitor that cap at the bottom of the sea and just what the test results mean. But tonight they agree that this test will go forward for another 24 hours . What was a picture of hope is now a mystery at the bottom of the sea. The government says, almost two miles from the troubled well head , there is a seepage on the ocean floor, just one of several problems discovered during the test.

    Admiral THAD ALLEN, Retired (National Incident Commander): We do know that there is some seepage around the base of the -- of the blowout preventer in terms of gas bubbles that are coming up, and that's what we're focusing on right now. But it does not appear to be, at this point, that it's a consequential problem.

    THOMPSON: There's also a leak from the bottom of the new cap, issues that taken together aren't enough to stop the test, but casts doubts on BP 's ability go keep the well plugged in until the relief well is finished.

    Adm. ALLEN: I think it would be very, very premature to say that the well is shut in until a relief well is done.

    THOMPSON: Inside the cap the pressure level is now at 6,811 pounds per square inch , far lower than what government scientists expected. Administration officials say two day sago they were very worried, but now they see the increasing pressure as a positive trend.

    Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): If we thought that the pressurization test itself potentially did damage to the sea floor , obviously we would -- we would stop that immediately.

    THOMPSON: What does concern everyone is the fear of bad weather. Tonight some experts say BP and the government should go back to containing the oil and save the ability to shut in the well for an emergency.

    Professor STEVE WERELEY (Purdue University): If a hurricane comes along, it would be possible then to shut in the well just like it is today and disconnect all the surface ships and take them to a safe port and leave the well shut in, and not stress the well until that rainy day comes.

    THOMPSON: And that rainy day may come sooner than most people would like. Forecasters say there is some weather developing north of Puerto Rico that could become a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico by this weekend. They're keeping an eye on that, while BP and government officials keep an eye on that

    cap a mile underwater. Brian: Anne Thompson at her now three-month-long post in Venice , Louisiana ,

    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
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    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
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    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion

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