Usually, this time of year is a bright spot for Gulf of Mexico tourism. Agents begin booking summer beach vacations or cruises for clients. International travelers see the region as affordable, given the exchange rate. The weather is turning warm. The prime family travel season is nearly here.
But a huge oil slick – caused by an explosion April 20 on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform owned by BP and operated by Transocean Ltd. -- now seriously threatens Gulf of Mexico beaches and coastal eco-areas.
To put this in perspective, this is the biggest oil spill along the U.S. coastline since the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. That spill reportedly cost more than $19 million in lost tourism revenues to businesses in Alaska.
Right now, agents and coastal tourism entities are taking a “wait and see” attitude, as the oil slick encompasses 600 square miles and threatens coastal areas from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.
Touring the staging areas for the government and oil company’s coastal response on Sunday, President Barack Obama said: "We're dealing with a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."
State of Emergency
States within the region including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida have shifted into an emergency management mode. Local CVBs and State Tourism Boards also have activated emergency response or communications planning.
On the cruise side, Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman, told Travel Agent on Monday that Carnival Triumph was able to get in and out of New Orleans last Saturday with no problems and that Carnival Fantasy arrived in Mobile this morning as scheduled. “We have been able to maneuver around the spill and are keeping a close eye on the situation,” said Gulliksen.
Timing has been helpful to Royal Caribbean, as its Voyager of the Seas, which had been sailing from Galveston, is currently on its transatlantic crossing, and arrived in Barcelona on May 2. The ship will not be back in Galveston until the end of November. “The oil spill is currently not affecting the route of any of our ships,” said Cynthia Martinez, manager of corporate communications for Royal Caribbean International.
For some deep-water fishing charters, the situation is less positive. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has banned both commercial and recreational fishing in a wide area of federal territory; that ban will last for at least 10 days. However, the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB site, says Mississippi Sound fishing in non-federal waters is still a visitor recreational option.
To protect the coastal beaches and marshes, six staging areas for the federal emergency response effort have been set up to protect sensitive shorelines: Biloxi, MS; Pensacola, FL; Venice, LA; Pascagoula, MS; Theodore, AL; and Port Sulphur, LA.
More than 276,000 feet of booms designed to corral the oil have been deployed or staged in the coastal areas. By Monday BP had reportedly employed some 500 fishing boats in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to deploy those booms.
But rough weather was hampering that effort in some areas along the coast; when waves are too high, the oil and water just slosh over the booms.
In addition, Alabama plans to prioritize the booms to first protect passes between the barrier islands and the coastal marshes of the Mississippi Sound. Beaches will be a secondary priority apparently. Officials say it’s far easier to clean beach areas than marshes. Sand can even be removed and replaced if needed.
Perception and Geography
Over time, the biggest enemy to combat, however, may be “travelers’ perceptions” about the scope of the spill’s impact. D. T. Minich, executive director, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, talked with Travel Agent Monday mid-day. While he says his group has had a few phone calls and inquiries from consumers, they haven’t yet seen cancellations.
But “I am most concerned [that] if and when it hits any portion of the Florida Coast, we have had similar perception problems in the past when a storm hit one area of the state and customers thought the whole state was affected,” Minich stressed. “People need to realize this is a huge state with more than 2,200 miles of coastline.”
The Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureau slated an emergency meeting this afternoon to discuss the situation. When it comes to geography, visitors – both domestic and foreign -- often have a poor sense of distance; they tend to equate an entire region with problems.
Perception and reality often vary sizably. Industry sources point to the situation in Mexico as one example. During the past year, consumers have cancelled beach vacations in Cancun in the Yucatan, despite that safe locale hundreds of miles from the drug violence along the U.S./Mexico border.
Taking a highly proactive approach to explaining the geography, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau has posted a notice on the front page of its Web site pointing out that New Orleans is located approximately 100 miles inland. And, the statement says “we do not anticipate any disruption in guest service or impact to visitors.”
Another looming issue, though, is that the oil well remains uncapped. It’s spewing 5,000 or more barrels daily into the Gulf of Mexico. As long as that continues, experts say the potential for damage to coastlines is greater. In addition, any negative visitor perceptions of the Gulf Coast as “damaged goods” could be solidified for the entire summer season, regardless of whether certain areas are even impacted.
Still, tourists interviewed on west central Florida’s beaches this past weekend told television reporters they were enjoying the beaches. A slight hint of odor from the slick arrived along the coast in various destinations, from New Orleans to Alabama and even to west central Florida. But that didn’t seem to seriously hamper beach plans.
Tourism officials are currently crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. Agents who wish to learn more about the oil spill response might visit these two official sites for information and updates: www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com and http://response.restoration.noaa.gov.