Oil spills over tourism in the Sunshine State

As summer arrives and Florida hopes to make up for the losses seen during the economic slowdown, the US state is threatened by the nearly 40,000 barrels of oil a day that are spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the US Coast Guard, strands of the spill entered the Gulf’s current and are moving towards popular tourist destinations in Florida including the Florida Keys and even Miami beaches and distressing a US$60 billion tourism industry.

Recession hurt Florida first

Before the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Florida was already struggling due to the major slowdown seen in tourism flows as the global economic crisis hit the US and the “AIG Effect” that severely hurt business tourism to resort areas in Florida in 2009.

Indeed, the number of domestic trips to the Florida state declined 4% in 2009, from 92 million to only 89 million. International arrivals were also impacted in 2009. The city of Miami, for example, saw the number of international tourist arrivals fall 9% in 2009, from 5.7 million to 5.2 million people.

International-airline-arrivals-us-cities

As of June 24, there were no beach closures and the majority of Florida’s state waters remained open to recreational fishing, except for those located offshore of Escambia County.

It is worth noting, however, that oil spots looking like a tar mousse have already been found between the Pensacola Beach Pier and the ranger station at Fort Pickens gate and continue to appear in Northwest Florida. According to federal authorities, cleanup crews are on site.

So far, there have been no reports of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill-related oil products reaching the shore beyond Northwest Florida and no indication that the rest of the state will be impacted until the first week of July. However, cancellations began in June despite the lack of oil on beaches. In West Florida, for example, which takes in 90% of its crucial tourism revenue during the summer, hotels have already seen 50% of bookings cancelled.

Coping strategies

Hence, in an attempt to alleviate oil spill concerns, the Department of Tourism in Florida started posting information about its destinations in real time on the web. Overall, tourists are able to see real-time images, webcams, Twitter feeds, beach condition updates and videos from people in Florida anytime at Florida Live – http://www.visitflorida.com/floridalive.

Additionally, the Department of Tourism launched a brand new advertising campaign. The advertising campaign features two ads entitled “More Than Enough” and “Need to Know” aimed at diminishing consumer skepticism and misinformation in regards to the oil spill and its potential impact in Florida. In both videos, images from beaches all over the state are shown while a message emphasizes the fact that the oil spill has not reached its shores and that it is safe to visit the Sunshine state.

The ads also encourage viewers to check real time info on the Department of Tourism website. The ads are set to appear in nearly 100 newspapers nationwide, national cable, broadcast television and radio domestic markets.

In order to avoid losing sales during summertime, travel and tourism businesses have introduced a number of guarantees similar to the ones seen in the H1N1 outbreak. The “Open Beach Guarantee” from Orbitz, for example, offers full refunds on hotel stays if government authorities close a beach within 20 miles of the property or declares it dangerous.

The guarantee is only valid for hotel bookings and (not an air/hotel package) at a participating Florida property via Orbitz for travel between June and July 31, 2010. In a trade press article, Orbitz mentioned its intention to extend the guarantee to other Gulf Coast beach destinations.

Hilton Worldwide is also offering a “Beach Satisfaction Guarantee” that waives cancellation and early departure fees if guests stay at a hotel that is impacted by the oil spill in the Gulf.

Uncertain outlook

Orlando,which is in the middle of the state, draws in many tourists to Florida and it won’t be impacted by the oil spill. In fact, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal opened in June to great success, so travel to the city may increase this year thanks to new attractions. However, it’s not likely to compensate for the loss of coastal tourists.

While the oil-spill guarantees and discounts may lure tourists, it is uncertain when and if the oil washes up onto the shore. For now, government authorities have reported a change in ocean currents, which have minimized the impact risks from the oil spill in the Florida Keys and most part of the state peninsula.

If the oil spill reaches the shore, however, it will likely encourage tourists to choose other sun and sea destinations that do not involve this risk. Furthermore, once there, it is uncertain how long it will take for cleanup crews to control the situation and how the environment will react to the chemicals use. This is very concerning as it could cast a shadow over the next two years on Florida’s beach tourism industry.

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