Fueling a Downturn in Northwest Florida
The oil spill began dampening tourism from day one.
A Pennsylvania tourist steps on oil at Pensacola Beach last month. [Photo: George Skene/Orlando Sentinel/MCT]
The BP oil spill had begun dampening tourism in the Panhandle even before oil began washing ashore.
“The damage occurred as soon as the oil spill formed, and every day it remains in existence, it’s compounded,’’ says Rick Harper, economist and director of the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at the University of West Florida. The spill couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Panhandle, where summer is peak tourism season and visitor spending is a major economic driver. In the five westernmost counties closest to the spill, tourism dollars support employment shares ranging from 8% in Santa Rosa County to 25% in Walton County, for as many as 55,000 jobs, says Harper.
Julian MacQueen, who operates four hotels from Pensacola Beach to Gulf Shores, Ala., and is building two more, says reservations began declining soon after the spill. Typically, he says, his hotels average 130 reservations a day; the average in late May was down to 50.
Ironically, this year was on track to be the best tourism year ever for the Pensacola area, with April gains measuring 17% from a year earlier, says Ed Schroeder, director of Pensacola’s Convention & Visitors Bureau. Post-spill, tourist development councils and lodging businesses launched campaigns — complete with webcams of dazzling beaches — to counter misperceptions of blackened shores.
The spill also curtailed Gulf fishing early on, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration enacted no-fishing zones that now encompass 37% of the Gulf’s federal waters. “Where I take the people is all the difference,’’ says Paul Redman of Pensacola, a 12-year charter boat captain, who’s set out artificial reefs to attract fish: “About 70% of mine are in the no-fish zone. It’s like taking your livelihood from you.” By late May, his business revenue was down $18,000, or about 90%, since the spill. Redman says his father, a commercial fisherman, “may take his boat off the Texas coast.’’