A year after spill, Gulf Coast faces new crisis

By Melissa Nelson and Molly Davis/The Associated Press

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Almost a year after a massive oil spill decimated the tourism industry along the Gulf Coast, 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.

Resorts, restaurants, casinos and charter fishermen 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.

Fred Grayer, who works in a sandwich shop in downtown Jackson, said he canceled a trip last week to Black Beach Week on the Mississippi Gulf Coast because of fuel prices.

“The gas was just way too ridiculous,” he said, saying he’d heard it was supposed to reach $5 a gallon this summer. He said he attended the celebration, which includes concerts and club specials, last year.

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.

Elsewhere, businesses are just trying to be creative. The Four Points Sheraton in Biloxi, Miss., will now send its free shuttle 12 miles out instead of 5 miles, said general manager Kenny Glavan. And officials say the city’s bus service is cheaper than driving around town.

“Just like the oil spill, the price of gas is going to have a psychological effect, and so the hotels have got to get creative and really push the message that there’s a value-added package,” Glavan said.

In Walton County, Fla., the upscale Sandestin Golf and Beach resort had recently offered a $50 gas credit for stays of three to seven days.

While fallout from the oil spill is still a concern, states still have some money handed out by BP for tourism efforts after the spill began. Tourism officials knew even before gas prices spiked that it would be tough to convince tourists to return in 2011.

BP says it gave out $22 million to promote Alabama tourism; $62 million to Florida; $18 million to Mississippi; and $20 million to Louisiana.

Mississippi, for example, is using the money to offer trips that combine dining, fishing trips and stays at casinos on the coast. In Alabama, where hot spots took a 50 percent hit last year in July and August, officials have started giveaways and come up with ad campaigns that target repeat visitors.

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Davis reported from Jackson, Miss. Associated Press Writer Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this story.