May 11, 2010 10:20 AM by Sharlee Jacobs
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Daydreams of beach sunsets have been
replaced by anxious Internet checks for many vacationers headed to
the Gulf Coast, while hotel clerks there are busy answering calls
about a massive oil spill and whether - just maybe - there's a shot
at a refund. The answer is typically no.
Meanwhile, the phones are also steadily ringing for tourism
officials hundreds of miles away at Atlantic Coast beaches like
Hilton Head Island, S.C., as they delicately try to lure
vacationers away without appearing to profit from the disaster.
The angst is caused by the millions of gallons of oil that have
spewed from a well at the ocean floor since an offshore drilling
rig exploded in the Gulf on April 20, killing 11 people. Balls of
tar began washing up on the white sand beaches of Alabama's Dauphin
Island over the weekend, while amounts ranging from globules to an
oily sheen were coming ashore to the west.
Tourism officials from Louisiana to Florida - and their
customers - are anxiously watching to see where else the slick
could come ashore. Vacationers who have already booked are tracking
the spill online, and many have been told they'll face a steep
penalty for backing out.
Karen Muehlfelt tried to cancel her upcoming trip to Destin,
Fla., but couldn't stomach the $1,000 penalty. Her beachfront hotel
assured her there were plenty of onshore activities, such as good
golf courses and restaurants.
"What's the best decision to make?" wondered Muehlfelt, a
55-year-old receptionist from Chicago. "It's hard-earned money.
Looking forward to this vacation is what has gotten us through the
first part of this year."
Businesses along the Gulf have the delicate task of keeping
customers happy but sticking to policies that penalize for
"I think reality has actually hit some of the people - whoa,
they aren't containing it quickly as we thought they might," said
Mallorie Thomas, a travel agent busy answering phones at Total
Travel in Birmingham, Ala.
Traditional travel insurance won't help, because the spill is
considered an act of man, not an act of God. Most travel insurance
only pays off if travelers can't reach a destination or
accommodations are closed, said Dan McGinnity, a spokesman for
insurance company Travel Guard North America. That likely won't be
the case even if oil begins rolling on shore.
New bookings have slowed to a trickle as people wait to see
where the oil goes. Normally, hotels might be willing to waive some
cancellation fees if they were likely to be able to rent the room
to someone else. But the uncertainty of the situation means rooms
may remain empty, even with the peak of the vacation season on the
An increase in cancellations in Panama City Beach, Fla., led six
resort and hotel groups to offer a $200 credit toward another visit
if the government shuts down the beach or is cleaning oil from the
sand and water when vacationers are there.
It's not just hotels trying to keep customers from bailing. When
Destin, Fla., photographer Donna Morgan's phone rings these days,
she knows it's not going to be a new client.
"We've had two cancellations so far. I've put a whole bunch
more of them off. It's been exhausting," said Morgan, who takes
wedding photos and family beach portraits. "I sympathize with our
customers, but we also have a business to run."
Elsewhere along the Southeast's Atlantic Coast, tourism
officials are diplomatically trying to snare vacationers who don't
want to risk having trips ruined by the massive spill.
From Miami to Tybee Island, Ga., and up to Myrtle Beach, S.C.,
phones at hotels and chambers of commerce have been ringing and
website traffic is up.
In Hilton Head Island, S.C., officials stress to callers that
the destination is closer to Atlanta than Gulf Coast beaches and
maybe only an hour farther for people from places such as
Nashville, Tenn., said Charlie Clark, spokesman for the island's
Chamber of Commerce.
But the push has to be done carefully.
"We feel for our tourism partners along the Gulf Coast," Clark
said. "No destination wants to see this happen."
So far, bookings haven't spiked because a lot of callers are
just checking their options, said Lindsay Fruchtl, spokeswoman for
the Tybee Island Tourism Council.
"They were not sure if their deposits would be refunded. I
think they were mainly checking availability in case they change
their plans," Fruchtl said.
Beaches are big business for Southeastern states. Alabama has
just two coastal counties, but visitors spend more than $3 billion
a year - better than a third of all tourism money in the state.
Tourists spend $60 billion a year in Florida, accounting for nearly
a quarter of all the state's sales tax revenue. And in South
Carolina, tourism is the state's biggest industry, with vacationers
spending more than $10 billion a year, the majority of it along the
The oil slick has been similar to a hurricane threat - but the
specter of most hurricanes torment coastal residents for a week,
maybe two if they form far out to sea. The agony over where the oil
will go seems to have no end in sight, said Morgan, who survived
and rebuilt after Hurricane Ivan devastated the region in 2004.
"With Ivan, we knew we were going to get help," Morgan said.
"With this, we don't know if we're going to get help or how we'll
Muehlfelt said she will continue watching the news about the oil
spill and weigh her options right up until she hits the road for
her 1,000-mile trip with her husband, 17-year-old daughter and
Several days ago, though, her plans suffered another blow when
storms flooded Nashville, a key point on their trip. "I wonder,"
she said, "if God isn't telling us not to go at this point."