Panhandle resort cities say oil leak hurting business

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

DESTIN, Fla. -- Destin Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Shane Moody doesn't mince words when asked if the BP/Transocean's Deepwater Horizon accident and resulting oil leak has affected business along the Florida panhandle's Gulf Coast.

"Yes, we've had some (resort) cancellations," Moody said Thursday. "And it's all because of mass hysteria created by reports in the national media. The water here is clean. The beaches are clean. The oil is in Louisiana.

"The media has done more to hurt us than the oil has."

An explosion last month on the Deepwater rig killed 11 workers and resulted in an uncapped well a mile below the surface on the Gulf floor. BP officials estimate that more than 200,000 gallons of light sweet crude oil are gushing each day from the stricken well.

"I just got back from a meeting where NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) people told us the oil is 75 miles from Pensacola Beach, 100 from Destin and 175 from Port St. Joe," Moody said. "But if you watch the news, you'd think that oil and tar balls were all up and down the panhandle.

"That is not the case."

Moody said resorts in the Destin area are reporting a higher-than-average number of cancellations since the accident. He also added that many resorts have relaxed their cancellation refund policies because of the circumstances.

Resorts aren't the the only businesses taking hits. Destin charter fishing Captain Tommy Carter said he's not seen any oil or tarballs, but has seen some cancellations as a result of the spill.

"I think we've had more damage done to us by the media than by the accident," Carter, echoing Moody, said. "They've made people think that there's oil on the beaches and in the water from Louisiana all the way across the panhandle. It's really killing fishing down here."

Carter said he thinks the spill and economy, when coupled with more stringent fishing regulations, will cause the Gulf Coast area to lose more than a few charter boats.

"In the charter business, you make or break your year from Memorial Day to Labor Day. If you don't make your money then, you aren't going to make it." Carter said.

Georgia's Atlantic resorts are benefiting from the panhandle's woes.

"We've seen a marked increase of people moving their reservations from the Gulf to here," St. Simon's Chamber CEO Bill Tipton said. "But we are not doing any 'come here instead of the Gulf' marketing. We're not raiding the panhandle. I feel for those people. I know they have to be very frustrated right now.

"Besides, we have hurricanes over here to worry about."

Chamber officials in Panama City Beach urged visitors, especially those from Southwest Georgia, not to abandon the beaches.

"There is no doubt that the spill has had a chilling impact on reservations in Panama City Beach," PCB Chamber/Convention and Visitors Bureau President Dan Rowe said. "We understand that visitors' vacation dollars are precious. But to the folks who know and love us in Dougherty County, we're asking them to hang in there with us during this difficult time."

Rowe said his office has fielded hundreds of calls from people asking about the water and the beach.

"We're getting the word out that there is no oil in the water or on the beach at Panama City Beach," Rowe said. "People are now starting to realize that there has been no impact on northwest Florida's beaches. Many of our properties are offering vacation guarantees.

"We'll get through this, and we are asking the people of the Southeast to hang in there with us."

According to a Friday update from NOAA, more than 1,040 vessels and 24,700 personnel are involved in efforts to contain the oil slick. More than 1.43 million feet of containment boom have been deployed and 8.37 gallons of oily water recovered.

In addition, 17 staging areas on the Gulf Coast are in place and ready to protect shorelines if needed.

Right now, the area's resorts are battling a perception problem that won't go away until the well is finally capped.

"This thing could have long-lasting implications for us," Moody said. "People are in panic mode right now and will be until they get it (the leak) plugged."