Oil Spill Means Dismal Summer For Gulf Beach Town

Thousands of tourists will be changing vacation plans this summer because of the Gulf oil spill. i i

A tugboat works to lay boom in the Gulf of Mexico near Perdido Pass at Orange Beach, Ala., while beachgoers watch. Thousands of tourists will be changing vacation plans this summer because of the Gulf oil spill. Jay Reeves/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jay Reeves/AP
Thousands of tourists will be changing vacation plans this summer because of the Gulf oil spill.

A tugboat works to lay boom in the Gulf of Mexico near Perdido Pass at Orange Beach, Ala., while beachgoers watch. Thousands of tourists will be changing vacation plans this summer because of the Gulf oil spill.

Jay Reeves/AP

The Fourth of July weekend is usually the peak of the summer on the Gulf Coast. Tourists flock to the beach to enjoy the sand and the surf and maybe do a little fishing.

But not this year.

The oil spill has all but destroyed the tourist trade from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle. And in Alabama, a favorite son is trying to help a beach town stay afloat.

Extraordinary Measures

The phones are ringing at a real estate office in Gulf Shores, Ala.

But instead of booking condos, reservationist Tabitha Williams is taking cancellations. One customer on the phone was planning to come for a family beach portrait but doesn't want an oil slick in the shot.

"I bet that's just completely ruining your plans," Williams says to the customer. And she explains some photographers have been able to find locations where there are no tar balls.

Williams then pleasantly processes a full refund and offers the customer a 30 percent oil-spill discount should she reconsider.

It's one of the extraordinary measures businesses are using to attract what few customers they can.

"It's nothing short of a fight for our very survival," says Bill Brett, the vice president of Brett Robinson Gulf Shores Vacation Condo Rentals.

Brett says the company manages about 2,100 condos in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala. And the holiday weekend is looking bleak.

"Right now we're staring at 40 percent occupancy rates, and I think we're very fortunate to have that," he says.

Not A Usual Summer

Normally, 98 percent of the company's condos would be full this weekend.

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Even before the oil had reached Alabama's shores, tourism here had taken a hit. Now, the oil is here, and that's about all. Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft says it's a stark contrast to the typical summer bustle.

"It's really sad because there's nobody here, and there's certainly no excitement," Craft says. "The lack of hope and enthusiasm and optimism that permeates this community is just really depressing."

The state is hoping that a national ad campaign, featuring Lucy Buffett, a famous Gulf Shores restaurateur, will help.

Buffett's famous brother is trying to help, too. Jimmy Buffett was supposed to headline a free concert on the beach Thursday, but it was postponed until July 11 because of Hurricane Alex.

The Lown family from Wisconsin came anyway. Mom, Dad, five kids and Grandma are on their summer vacation. Sitting at a picnic table at Lucy Buffett's Lulu's restaurant, Misty Lown says now's the time to support the region.

A local crowd in Gulf Shores, Ala., enjoys a surprise show from Jimmy Buffett on Wednesday. i i

A local crowd in Gulf Shores, Ala., enjoys a surprise show from Jimmy Buffett on Wednesday. A free concert scheduled for Thursday was postponed because of Hurricane Alex. Buffett and his sister Lucy are trying to boost a tourism economy devastated by the oil spill. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR
A local crowd in Gulf Shores, Ala., enjoys a surprise show from Jimmy Buffett on Wednesday.

A local crowd in Gulf Shores, Ala., enjoys a surprise show from Jimmy Buffett on Wednesday. A free concert scheduled for Thursday was postponed because of Hurricane Alex. Buffett and his sister Lucy are trying to boost a tourism economy devastated by the oil spill.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

"I'm a small-business owner back home in Wisconsin, and I know if I didn't have all of the clients that I have, even for a short period of time, it would be hard to keep the doors open," she says. "And when we're in the hotel, and we look around, and we're the only person sitting at the pool, I can't help but think that the people down here are struggling. If people turn their back on this area because of the oil, that would be a shame."

'We Need To Play'

Lucy Buffett says if she can draw more visitors like the Lowns, she's doing what she can in an otherwise heartbreaking situation.

"We need to play, too," she says. "We have to play, and we're out of balance. We're in grief, anger, anxiety, and there isn't enough play. You have to have all of those things to be well-rounded. We know a lot about play, we Buffetts."

Jimmy Buffett came for a little fun and a surprise show at Lulu's on Wednesday.

And when he played his signature anthem, "Margaritaville," everybody sang along in a giant group therapy session.

He closed with his song, "When the Coast Is Clear," which echoed the hope in the crowd that it will be again soon.

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