Although ooze from the Gulf of Mexico spill has not reached the Tampa Bay area, officials here want federal lawmakers to know that the disaster's tangible and perceived effect continues to hammer the region's tourism industry.
That was the message relayed by Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard when he testified at a congressional hearing today in New Orleans.
Florida tourism has declined, Hibbard said, and the ongoing disaster is preventing local businesses from recovering lost revenue.
The hearing investigated how efficiently the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command Center communicated with other agencies across several states about response to the spill.
Attendees discussed how the seafood, restaurant, hotel and tourism industries are being impacted and how oil dispersants will not be used after the oil leak is capped, said U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who helped initiate the meeting in New Orleans. Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, represents the 9th District, covering portions of Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
As the efforts to plug the leak drag on, the Tampa Bay tourism industry has changed its marketing tactics in hopes of recouping losses.
D.T. Minich, the executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, said his tourism bureau is now focusing advertising on in-state residents.
The ads encourage Floridians to take "staycations" close to home because "in-state residents know the geography better," he said.
News reports about the oil-stained beaches in Pensacola have skewed the perception of European tourists who think all Florida coastlines are slathered with sludge, Minich said. There isn't enough money in the budget for an advertising blitz in European markets that would change tourists' minds, he said.
"Once they get it capped, the perception will be better," Minich said of the gusher.
Bilirakis said a better job has to be done to get the word out that not all Florida has been impacted by the oil spill.
"We have to have a P.R (public relations) campaign. That's what needs to be done," Bilirakis said. "The facts need to get out. Seafood is safe, our beaches are clean. More than three-quarters of Florida is not being impacted."
But the perception has been so bad and booking inquiries have been so low that local hoteliers are offering what they call the "Book With Confidence" guarantee.
If visitors arrive to find any local beach "affected by the oil spill in any way, your first night is 100 percent on us - taxes and resort fees included," according to the Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater website.
The Sirata Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach has a "Clean Beach Guarantee." If oil from the spill arrives at Sirata's beachfront, the resort will waive early departure fees and offer a 6 p.m. cancellation on the day of arrival, said hotel spokesman Steve Rosenstock.
These guarantees apply to all visitors, tourism officials said.
Hoteliers also are offering discounted rates to keep their businesses afloat. Some resorts are offering packages of a free night if visitors stay two or more days. Others are advertising discounts between 15 to 30 percent per night.
Though the spill has impacted vacation bookings, the reality is that the ooze is nowhere near the west coast of Florida, said University of South Florida oceanographer Chuanmin Hu.
In fact, winds from recent Hurricane Alex pushed the surface oil near the leaky well farther northwest, away from Tampa and a current in the Gulf that could have sent the ooze to the Florida Keys, Hu said.
The oil blob on the surface is smaller since the hurricane impacted it, he said.
"Either the oil has mixed with the water or more has been pushed on shore" in other Gulf states like Mississippi or Louisiana, Hu said.