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Gulf spill impacts beach towns' business for holiday

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. - 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 room prices reduced.

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 customers walking in to buy T-shirts, flip-flops, hermit crabs, seashells and other kitsch are 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 Fourth of July is a key, key component," said Chris Thompson, president and chief executive 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.

About 25 percent of all rooms in the Pensacola Bay area were vacant on Friday, said Ed Schroeder, director of the convention and visitors bureau. Last year, occupancy was 100 percent.

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," DiNero said.

Meanwhile, in Pensacola Beach, 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 stains left behind.

In Alabama's Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island, tar is staining beaches and livelihoods are on the brink. Dauphin Island's new public beach is a staging area for the cleanup. Both communities have canceled their fireworks displays. "With this happening, tourism is dead," said Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier. " . . . People just aren't in the mood."


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