Analysis of the Ixtoc oil spill (140 million gallons, comparable to this year's Gulf Coast spill) off Mexico's coast in 1979 suggests that affected beaches could return to pre-spill conditions within about three years. However, tar balls and patties could wash ashore for longer. Some mangrove swamps in the Yucatan Peninsula, an ecosystem similar to the one found off the Louisiana Gulf Coast, currently are 80 percent recovered from that spill; tar still can be found in some areas.
Source: "The Potential Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill on Tourism," a study by the U.S. Travel Association
It's been six months since BP's Deepwater Horizon well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest offshore spill in U.S. history, and more than two months since the leak was capped. By mid-September, all remnants of surface oil slicks, which at one point covered 2,500 square miles of the Gulf, were gone; fishing, an industry that netted $4 billion in 2008, had been declared safe by the federal government in nearly the entire region; and beaches affected by the spill were open and declared safe by their respective state health departments.
Coupled with a $70 million emergency tourism marketing grant BP gave this summer to the four states affected by the spill -- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi -- the Gulf Coast tourism industry is positioned for a comeback.
But are these positive signs enough to make the public forget the televised images of oil-coated birds, out-of-work fisherman and eerily deserted beaches, and lure visitors back to the region?
A U.S. Travel Association study (bit.ly/aspmC0) projects tourism losses in the area could reach a staggering $22.7 billion. The report, conducted by Oxford Economics, considered how the spill had already impacted the behavior of tourists and visitors; it also assessed the duration and magnitude of the disaster on the Gulf's image and travel prospects in a comparison with similar data from earlier disasters, such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and Hurricane Katrina.
Among the keys to tourism recovery, according to the study, will be to alter travelers' perceptions. As Richard Forester, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, says, "The single greatest problem we have is perception; we had oil on the beach once, and we got calls from people who wanted to know if they had to wear gas masks or if the finish on their cars would be safe."
However outsiders view the oil spill, "This has been a different type of crisis; it's affected each of the four states in different ways," says Chris Thompson, president and CEO of Visit Florida, that state's official tourism marketing body. Following is a look at the challenges the spill presents to the affected states, and how they've responded to date.
Picking up the pieces The beach resorts of Gulf Shores/Orange Beach in Baldwin County, Ala., took the brunt of the spill. In 2009, the area, which accounts for 25 percent of the state's tourism revenues, had 4.6 million visitors who spent $2.3 billion and sustained 40,000 tourism-related jobs. Beginning May 1, less than two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon well exploded, group cancellations started rolling into the Alabama Gulf Shores Convention & Visitors Bureau. By Aug. 6, a total of 37 meetings and events -- representing 2,300 group room nights, an estimated $410,000 in room revenues and $460,000 in additional spending -- were lost.
And it wasn't just meetings that were affected; lodging revenue was down 53 percent in July from 2009 figures, according to Beth Gendler, the Gulf Shores CVB's director of sales. Based on the bureau's projections through 2012, the destination stands to lose some 9,400 group room nights.
To quickly counteract tourism losses, the CVB used funds from the initial BP Gulf grant for tools to help planners boost attendance, including electronic postcards and giveaways for free stays. The bureau also launched daily video beach updates and information about attractions in the region.
In Mobile, a spokesperson for the Alabama Tourism Department says the city was a command center for BP clean-up operations, so "hotels were booked, but not with tourists." What did suffer losses, she says, were tourist attractions like the Mobile Mardi Gras Museum.