PENSACOLA -- Almost a year after a massive oil spill decimated the tourism industry along the Gulf Coast, tourism officials from the northern Gulf Coast say another oil-related crisis is now threatening the recovery: Gasoline prices are creeping toward $4 a gallon, which could keep travelers from coming back to white-sand beaches that have been scrubbed of BP’s oil.
The Bradenton area’s tourism expert calls fallout from last year’s oil spill and gas prices “non-issues” for Manatee County. But resorts, restaurants, casinos and charter fishermen from Pensacola and north say the pricey trips could keep some travelers away, though it could also keep vacationers in the South closer to home. High gas prices could leave many who do make the trip looking for ways to save money -- whether it’s cutting vacations by a day or skipping restaurant trips.
“When the gas prices go up, everyday living for our average traveler is more expensive and that means they have less money for an optional vacation,” said Ed Schroeder, director of the Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
High crude oil prices have pushed gas on the coast to an average of about $3.67 a gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s 91 cents higher than the same time last year, when tourists stayed away from Gulf beaches that had been coated with oil and tar balls after BP PLC’s well blew out April 20. Even the many Gulf beaches that never saw a drop of oil still struggled with the perception among potential visitors that crude was a threat.
Manatee County’s tourism official, Elliott Falcione, predicts those tourists planning to vacation here are unfazed by either high gas prices or perceived effects of last year’s oil spill.
“The demographic that comes to Manatee County is a higher demographic clientele,” Falcione says, citing an average $97,000 household income for tourists who come here. “So we don’t feel the cost of oil will stop them from coming here, especially in the summertime.”
Falcione also said he’s gathered feedback both regionally and internationally that says any perceived lingering effect of the BP oil spill on southwest Florida’s tourist draw is just that: a mere perception.
“It’s a non-issue,” Falcione said. “And we want to forget about it. We don’t want to remind people of it.” He said his views are based most strongly on a March trip to a worldwide travel conference in Berlin, where he heard from tour operators in the United Kingdom and Germany who said they don’t even connect the oil spill to Southwest Florida.
Nevertheless, in Biloxi, Bath Junkie shop owner Brooke Odom said high gas prices usually mean a drop in sales. However, she said, she’s still hopeful the region can make a comeback.
“I do think there’s an overall sense of things picking up and people being more positive about the future,” Odom said. “I’m just hoping the gas prices don’t stop that positive energy.”
Tourism leaders have stepped up marketing to lure vacationers, using money left over from last year’s BP handout to offer bonuses for weary consumers. Others are hoping the Gulf Coast will attract people who can make the trip in a day.
“On the positive, this makes all forms of travel more expensive and ours is still a one-tank away market. It makes fuel a smaller part of the total vacation. Instead of a two-day trip to south Florida or Dallas, they will spend seven or eight hour maximum driving and come here,” Schroeder said.
Others aren’t so certain.
Mike Foster, the vice president of marketing at Gulf Shores/Orange Beach Tourism in Alabama, said spiking gas prices come with bad vibes for travelers, even if the jump in prices doesn’t add up to a major increase for a one-tank trip.
“They probably pay that much money for a round of putt-putt golf, but again it’s not total reality,” Foster said. “It’s perception, and it’s kind of a gut feeling.”
Charter fishermen were especially hard-hit by the spill, which shut down most commercial and recreational fishing for months. Take Ian McGowan, for instance, who uses up to 200 gallons of gas a day on his deep-sea sport fishing trips out of Grand Isle, La. When gasoline prices go up, prices for his customers go up, too.
“I think it’s on everybody’s mind right now what fuel prices are going to do,” McGowan said.
In Walton County, the upscale Sandestin Golf and Beach resort is offering a $50 gas credit for stays of three to seven days.
-- Bradenton Herald Business Writer Christine Hawes contributed to this story.