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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The Fourth of July weekend is usually the peak for summer tourism on the Gulf Coast. Visitors crowd the beaches to enjoy the sand and surf and maybe do a little fishing. But not this year. From Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, the ongoing oil spill has all but destroyed the tourist trade.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports now on how a favorite son is trying to help an Alabama beach town stay afloat.

(Soundbite of ringing phones)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Phones are ringing at this real estate office in Gulf Shores.

Ms. TABITHA WILLIAMS (Reservationist, Brett Robinson Gulf Shores Vacation Condo Rentals): It's a great day, Brett Robinson. This is Tabitha. How can I help you?

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

Ms. WILLIAMS: I bet that's just completely ruining your plans. There are areas that have less, in fact, than others. So some photographers are still out there. It's just a matter of location and where there's no tar balls so...

ELLIOTT: She pleasantly processes a full refund and offers the customer a 30 percent oil spill discount, should she reconsider. These are some of the extraordinary measures businesses are using to attract what few customers they can.

Mr. BILL BRETT (Vice President, Brett Robinson Gulf Shores Vacation Condo Rentals): And it's nothing short of a fight for our very survival.

ELLIOTT: Brett Robinson Vice President Bill Brett says the company manages about 2,100 condos in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama. The holiday weekend is looking bleak.

Mr. BRETT: Right now, we're staring at 40 percent occupancy rates, and I think we're very fortunate to have that.

ELLIOTT: Normally, 98 percent of their condos would be full this weekend. Even before the oil had reached Alabama's shores, tourism took 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.

Mayor ROBERT CRAFT (Gulf Shores, Alabama): Yeah, it's really sad because there's nobody here, and there's certainly no excitement. The lack of hope and enthusiasm and optimism that permeates this community is just really depressing.

(Soundbite of a tourism ad)

Ms. LUCY BUFFETT (Restaurateur): I'm Lucy Buffett, and I love my gorgeous Alabama beaches. We're keeping a close eye on the beaches, so you can enjoy them too.

ELLIOTT: The state is hoping this national ad campaign, featuring a famous Gulf Shores restaurateur, will help. Her famous brother is trying to help too.

Jimmy Buffett was supposed to headline a free concert on the beach tonight, but it's been postponed until July 11th 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 is the time to support the region.

Ms. MISTY LOWN (Small-business owner): I'm a small-business owner back home in Wisconsin. And I know that if I didn't have all of the clients that I have, that if even for a short period of time, it would be really hard to keep the doors open. And when we're in the hotel and we look around and we're the only persons 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 real shame.

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

Ms. BUFFETT: We need to play, too. We have to play, and we're out of balance. We're in grief, anger, anxiety, and there hasn't been enough play. You got to have all of those things to make us well-rounded. We know a lot about play, we Buffetts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. JIMMY BUFFETT (Singer/Songwriter): Nice to be home.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ELLIOTT: Lucy's brother, Jimmy, came for a little fun and a surprise show at Lulu's last night.

Mr. BUFFETT: All those tourists covered in oil was not exactly what I had in mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUFFETT: I like it the other way.

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of song, "Margaritaville")

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

Mr. BUFFETT: (Singing) ...shaker of salt.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Salt. Salt. Salt.

Mr. BUFFETT: (Singing) Some people claim that there's a woman to blame. But I know this is all BP's fault.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

ELLIOTT: Buffett closed with his song "When the Coast is Clear," echoing the hope in the crowd that it will be again soon.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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