SE Beaches Look To Woo Tourists In Oil Spill Limbo

Daydreams of beach sunsets have beenreplaced by anxious Internet checks for many vacationers headed tothe Gulf Coast, while hotel clerks there are busy answering callsabout a massive oil spill and whether - just maybe - there's a shotat a refund. The answer is typically no.

Meanwhile, the phones are also steadily ringing for tourismofficials hundreds of miles away at Atlantic Coast beaches likeHilton Head Island, S.C., as they delicately try to lurevacationers away without appearing to profit from the disaster.

The angst is caused by the millions of gallons of oil that havespewed from a well at the ocean floor since an offshore drillingrig exploded in the Gulf on April 20, killing 11 people. Balls oftar began washing up on the white sand beaches of Alabama's DauphinIsland over the weekend, while amounts ranging from globules to anoily sheen were coming ashore to the west.

Tourism officials from Louisiana to Florida - and theircustomers - are anxiously watching to see where else the slickcould come ashore. Vacationers who have already booked are trackingthe spill online, and many have been told they'll face a steeppenalty for backing out.

Karen Muehlfelt tried to cancel her upcoming trip to Destin,Fla., but couldn't stomach the $1,000 penalty. Her beachfront hotelassured her there were plenty of onshore activities, such as goodgolf courses and restaurants.

"What's the best decision to make?" wondered Muehlfelt, a55-year-old receptionist from Chicago. "It's hard-earned money.Looking forward to this vacation is what has gotten us through thefirst part of this year."

Businesses along the Gulf have the delicate task of keepingcustomers happy but sticking to policies that penalize forcancellations.

"I think reality has actually hit some of the people - whoa,they aren't containing it quickly as we thought they might," saidMallorie Thomas, a travel agent busy answering phones at TotalTravel in Birmingham, Ala.

Traditional travel insurance won't help, because the spill isconsidered an act of man, not an act of God. Most travel insuranceonly pays off if travelers can't reach a destination oraccommodations are closed, said Dan McGinnity, a spokesman forinsurance company Travel Guard North America. That likely won't bethe case even if oil begins rolling on shore.

New bookings have slowed to a trickle as people wait to seewhere the oil goes. Normally, hotels might be willing to waive somecancellation fees if they were likely to be able to rent the roomto someone else. But the uncertainty of the situation means roomsmay remain empty, even with the peak of the vacation season on thehorizon.

It's not just hotels trying to keep customers from bailing. WhenDestin, 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 bunchmore of them off. It's been exhausting," said Morgan, who takeswedding photos and family beach portraits. "I sympathize with ourcustomers, but we also have a business to run."

Elsewhere along the Southeast's Atlantic Coast, tourismofficials are diplomatically trying to snare vacationers who don'twant 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 andwebsite traffic is up.

In Hilton Head Island, S.C., officials stress to callers thatthe destination is closer to Atlanta than Gulf Coast beaches andmaybe only an hour farther for people from places such as

Nashville, Tenn., said Charlie Clark, spokesman for the island'sChamber of Commerce.

But the push has to be done carefully.

"We feel for our tourism partners along the Gulf Coast," Clarksaid. "No destination wants to see this happen."

So far, bookings haven't spiked because a lot of callers arejust checking their options, said Lindsay Fruchtl, spokeswoman forthe Tybee Island Tourism Council.

"They were not sure if their deposits would be refunded. Ithink they were mainly checking availability in case they changetheir plans," Fruchtl said.

Beaches are big business for Southeastern states. Alabama hasjust two coastal counties, but visitors spend more than $3 billiona year - better than a third of all tourism money in the state.Tourists spend $60 billion a year in Florida, accounting for nearlya quarter of all the state's sales tax revenue. And in SouthCarolina, tourism is the state's biggest industry, with vacationersspending more than $10 billion a year, the majority of it along thecoast.

The oil slick has been similar to a hurricane threat - but thespecter of most hurricanes torment coastal residents for a week,maybe two if they form far out to sea. The agony over where the oilwill go seems to have no end in sight, said Morgan, who survivedand 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'llget help."

Muehlfelt said she will continue watching the news about the oilspill and weigh her options right up until she hits the road forher 1,000-mile trip with her husband, 17-year-old daughter and21-year-old son.

Several days ago, though, her plans suffered another blow whenstorms flooded Nashville, a key point on their trip. "I wonder,"she said, "if God isn't telling us not to go at this point."

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