Although the oil slick is still miles from the popular beaches that stretch along the northern Gulf Coast, the tourism industry is feeling the impact from the public relations nightmare that an oil spill creates.
As oil company BP fights a leak deep in the Gulf of Mexico, cleanup is under way on some of Louisiana's uninhabited barrier islands, where oil began washing ashore Thursday, threatening wildlife and fragile marshes.
Although the oil slick is still miles from the popular beaches that stretch along the northern Gulf Coast, the tourism industry is feeling the impact from the public relations nightmare that a glob of floating oil creates.
The sand on the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., is sugar-white and fine, glistening in the May sunshine as aqua-green waves from the Gulf gently lap the shore.
There's no sign of what lurks beyond the horizon.
Dave O'Hara, a home inspector from Fairhope, Ala., who was relaxing on the public beach in Gulf Shores, described it as beautiful.
"[I] really don't want to be down here with the globby oil all over the place if it does happen," O'Hara said. "[I] want to see it the way it is now. It may be a long time before it's this way again."
The beach isn't as crowded as it should be in early May. The outlook isn't so good with the peak season just weeks away.
"Regardless, if a drop of oil hits our beach or not, this summer's pretty much been shot as far as bookings and reservations and any kind of profitability that 2010 would bring," said Tom Goodwin, who owns a property management company.
Goodwin was one of about 700 people who crowded into the Gulf Shores Civic Center for a meeting this week on the oil spill. BP representative Bruce Johnson tried to assure the worried business owners that the company was doing all it could.
"We're going to clean up that spill -– that's our commitment," Johnson said. "And we will honor every legitimate claim. That's a promise."
But Alabama Attorney General Troy King called that lawyer-speak, and some local officials are frustrated with the response.
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said the oil spill has the potential to create an economic tsunami.
"For them to clean up their mess is not a favor to me," Kennon said. "What I want them to do is clean their mess up and then clean up the economic mess that they're leaving behind that could affect our folks for years to come and that could affect our businesses for years to come."
Mike Schulte, the contractor who is handling claims for BP, said he is already writing checks for people who make their living from the water. But, he said, businesses on land will have to wait until the oil flow is stopped and a final adjustment can be made.
When Schulte left the meeting before taking questions, several irate people followed him out the door, accusing him of wasting their time by leaving early.
Others are hesitant to file for claims now, for fear that they would be giving up the right to seek future compensation.
Patsy Carleton, who owns a beach photography business, says even once the oil-spill crisis is over, it could drive away tourists for a long time to come.
"My concern is not just this summer, but next summer and the next summer, and how do you make a claim?" Carleton said. "And if you make a claim now, how does it affect the next several years?"
The good news from the meeting came from state health officer Don Williamson, who said there are no plans to close public beaches if tar balls reach the Alabama shore. Williamson said there isn't a health threat, but he acknowledged the perception issue: "Let me just be realistic: If you were the parent of a 3-year-old, would you want your 3-year-old to go swimming in oil-laden water? No. Precisely."
That's a real problem for a state that promotes itself as a family-friendly destination, and where coastal tourism is a $2.7 billion industry.
Orange Beach Boat Captain Richie Russell hopes sea life will rebound after the spill. His dolphin cruises have been grounded for nearly two weeks.
"We hold up to 49 people, and 15 is our minimum to go out, and we can't get that," he said. "I can't make no money. I'm behind on my bills. Marina rent's due."
The angst here on the Alabama Gulf Coast is playing out to the east in Florida as well, where tourism is an even bigger industry. But beaches along the Eastern Seaboard are reporting a jump in business, seemingly benefiting from the oil that looms in the Gulf.
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