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Panhandle tourism tanks as oil hits beaches

Normally packed parking lots of Panhandle tourist businesses sat nearly empty over the weekend despite offers of discounts in an effort to lure customers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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."

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.