Tourist businesses in Florida's Panhandle, from Pensacola to Panama City, are feeling the crunch of the massive oil spill, as normally packed parking lots sat nearly empty, despite offers of discounts in an effort to drum up customers.
If not for the temperatures in the high 80s, the Florida Panhandle seems more like the January or February tourist offseason than the peak of summer.
Hotels and rental agencies are doing what they can to salvage the summer by offering discounts and refunds if beaches are closed because of oil cleanup. Tourism leaders are promoting attractions away from the beaches, but it appears they are losing the battle to keep vacationers as the gummy tar and black crude made its slow creep toward more of the shoreline.
On a recent weekend, the normally stop-and-go traffic in the tourist town of Destin flowed easily without many of the hundreds of SUVs 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.
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 well in advance for popular weekends, but desk clerk Julia Rohlman says the inn still has open rooms. "Some people are making reservations, but others are calling and canceling," she said.
Bulldozers, front-end loaders and hundreds of cleanup workers lined Pensacola Beach as few curious beach walkers ventured near the water. Tractors and pallets of plastic sheeting for cleanup work filled beach parking lots.
IN PANAMA CITY
At the 140-room Grand Cayman Hotel, 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.
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.