MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Along the Gulf Coast, beach towns are gearing up for what they hope will be their comeback summer. Early signs are encouraging. In Florida, Mississippi and Alabama, tourism officials say spring break is shaping up well, and summer bookings are looking strong, too. As part of our series examining the impact of the oil spill one year later, NPR's Greg Allen has this report on tourism in Florida's Panhandle.
GREG ALLEN: If it's April in Panama City, Florida, it must be spring break.
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Unidentified Man: (Singing) (unintelligible)
ALLEN: This is Panama City's Pier Park Entertainment Complex, with restaurants, bars, shopping, rides for the kids, and it's busy.
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ALLEN: Here and in other beach towns along Florida's Panhandle, hotel and restaurant owners are smiling once again. The crowds appear to be coming back -quite a difference, says Dan Rowe, from last year.
Mr. DAN ROWE (Director, Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau): It was a very stressful summer.
ALLEN: Rowe, the head of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, says even after the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20th, for the first few months, tourism stayed pretty good. He recalls, though, exactly when things changed.
Mr. ROWE: It was June 18th at 11:30 at night. I know that because that's when my cell phone started ringing off the hook.
ALLEN: The first tar balls had been found on Panama City's pure white, sugar sand beaches. The community never saw any heavy oil or even oil sheen. Its beaches were never closed. But those tar balls changed everything. BP gave Florida and the other Gulf states millions of dollars in marketing money. In Panama City, Dan Rowe's group sent out daily video of its beaches and posted updated photos on digital billboards in cities throughout the Southeast.
Mr. ROWE: We never tried to hide the impacts from the oil spill, because by telling visitors and potential visitors what was going on, you know, we felt that that was important to reassure them, that if they came to Panama City beach, they would understand what their vacation experience would be.
ALLEN: Throughout the summer, the visitor's bureau ran promotions and beach celebrations - even giving away $20,000 in gift cards. The result? Tourism dropped by 15 percent. The weather was still good, the beaches were open, but people stayed away. It's an experience that left many in Panama City a little bitter.
Mr. MIKE THOMAS (Restaurant Owner): But I think the national news hurt Bay County as much as the oil spill did.
ALLEN: Mike Thomas owns two restaurants in town and is a member of the Bay County Commission. He's disappointed at news coverage that he feels lumped Panama City in with communities that were heavily oiled. For Panama City, the spill and the downturn in tourism came just as the community was completing a makeover with a bevy of new hotels and condos, the Pier Park complex and a brand new $300 million airport. It was expected to be a banner year. Thomas says when the spill hit, he was building a new restaurant. He was forced to put it on hold.
Mr. THOMAS: I mean, we had projected some huge increases because of the airport. And I was in the process of doubling my business. And that stopped it. That hurt. That impact will be felt for a long time.
ALLEN: Further west, where more oil came ashore, the impact was even greater. In Alabama, one million fewer visitors hit the beaches last year than before the spill. In Mississippi, fewer visitors meant gaming revenue at the state's 30 casinos fell by $130 million. But in all these areas, tourism officials now say visitors appear to be coming back.
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ALLEN: At Captain Anderson's Marina on Panama City Beach, a sight-seeing boat, the Captain Anderson 3 has just returned to the dock with a good crowd.
Unidentified Man: Watch your step.
Unidentified Woman: Thank you so much.
Unidentified Man: Thank you for riding with us today.
Unidentified Woman: All right. Thank you.
Unidentified Man: Thank you.
ALLEN: But that's just part of the business here. There are 25 charter boats for fishing, and three that take out divers. Pam Anderson, who runs the marina, says for those charter captains, business still hasn't returned.
Ms. PAM ANDERSON (Marina Operator): Reservations are about a third of what they should be, which is not good. But I think that people are watching and waiting, and want to be sure that there's nothing that's going to be harmful or anything. And there really isn't.
ALLEN: For most of last summer, NOAA closed deep sea fishing grounds in the Gulf. That killed the popular red snapper season, and even worse, sent a message to fishermen that there were concerns about the quality of fish in the Gulf.
The fishing grounds were reopened last year. NOAA has conducted thousands of tests of fish and shrimp and consistently reported no sign of any contamination from oil or dispersants. It's clear the seafood is safe. But among many here, there are still questions about what the spill's long-term impact will be.
Fishermen talk about the collapse of the herring fishery in Prince William Sound four years after the Exxon Valdez spill. Pam Anderson says the fear something like that could happen in the Gulf so far has kept her from filing her final claim with BP.
Ms. ANDERSON: If it has affected the areas where our fish come from and the grounds where all the original species come from that our fish feed on, then that's going to be a problem.
ALLEN: To help rebuild tourism, BP recently gave beach communities in northwest Florida another $30 million in marketing money. And to keep the beaches clean, teams hired by BP scour the sand, looking for the tar balls that continue to wash up a year later.
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ALLEN: On Pensacola Beach, people are out sunbathing, fishing and swimming. And there's another now-familiar site: tooling along in their electric buggy, a four-man crew is searching for tar balls. On this day, after five hours of work, they've already picked up a few pounds. When asked how long the crews will be on the beaches, Craig Savage with BP's gulf coast restoration group says as long as it takes.
Mr. CRAIG SAVAGE (BP's Gulf Coast Restoration Group): That's what we're trying to do, is to have these teams come out here on a regular basis like they're doing - up at 5:30, and patrolling these beaches until 2, 2:30, to keep these beaches clean.
ALLEN: To keep the beaches clean, authorities in Pensacola, Orange Beach, Alabama and other communities along the coast say BP has to find and target the source of the tar balls. In many cases, it's turned out to be submerged tar mats: congealed oil pounded into the sand just beyond the surf line. BP recently cleaned one up on Perdido Key, near Pensacola.
The director of the County's environmental department, Keith Wilkins, says several others have also been identified.
Mr. KEITH WILKINS (Director of Environmental department, County): It's more a nuisance. It's more of an aesthetic issue to us. And tourists could actually walk in them. They're shallow enough. We very much want to see the response agencies come in and investigate the existence of those tar mats and get them cleaned up.
ALLEN: Pensacola is on the Western end of Florida's Panhandle, closer to the source of the spill and an area that, unlike Panama City, saw a lot of oil. A year later, though, after months of work raking and sifting sand, the beaches are back to normal. Fred Simmons, who owns the Paradise Hotel and rents cottages on Pensacola Beach, says his bookings now are triple what they were before the spill. Some of it, he concedes, is pent-up demand - people who didn't come last year. But he says you also have to credit the weather and Pensacola's beautiful beaches.
Mr. FRED SIMMONS (Owner, Paradise Hotel): Man, look at this. I mean, it don't get better than this. I know you're only radio, but you ought to go film that beach right now. It'd make everyone want to come here.
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ALLEN: Making a living from tourism or fishing along the Gulf Coast has always meant dealing with the uncertainty of weather and hurricanes. Over the past year, communities along the coast have learned man-made disasters can be just as costly and even harder to recover from.
Greg Allen, NPR news, Miami.
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