Continued from page 1

“It’s a policy of not charging them anything, should they get down to Florida and find the situation is worse than anticipated when they first booked,” she said.

Other places are offering refunds if beaches close after guests arrive or no penalties for last-minute cancellations.

Tourism is the No. 1 industry in Florida and 94 percent of tourists are repeat visitors, so long-term relationships with guests matter, Torian said. Her agency has added online features at with links to beach webcams, daily videos and Twitter feeds “so folks can see what’s going on in those communities.”

In Gulf Shores, Ala., “the parking lots look more like October instead of June,” said Lee Sentell, a spokesman for Alabama Tourism, a state agency. “Since the oil arrived, the reservations have slowed dramatically.”

Officials in Baldwin County, which includes Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, “fear that they are facing a billion-dollar loss in tourism revenue this season,” or nearly half of the county’s $2.3 billion tourism business, Sentell said.

But he said it’s a misperception that local beaches are covered in oil.

“We have a little oil that may come with the morning tide, and it’s quickly cleaned up,” Sentell said. “Then we’re sitting there with beautiful beaches all day long and only a fraction of the number of people who are normally there. The national media has been so focused on the gobs of oil that it gives the impression that there is oil everywhere and that’s not the case.”

Several organizations that handle meetings and conferences said they did not know of widespread cancellations, but the Knowland Group, which collects data in the industry, surveyed 50 hotels across the Gulf Coast June 2-3 and found 60 percent had group booking cancellations.

And Gulf hotels are nearly as full as last year, according to Smith Travel, which tracks hotel occupancy nationwide, spokesman Jan Freitag said that was probably due to relief workers taking rooms and vacationers frontloading trips in areas that have yet to see oil.

Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor of Travelocity, said the website is understandably “seeing cancellations” on the northern Gulf, but what’s more disturbing are “queries from customers worried about vacation plans that will see little or no impact, like Orlando.”

“People don’t necessarily have a handle on geography,” she said. “We don’t want this to turn to a worse situation, with people worried about trips to places that are not affected.”

Andy Newman, a spokesman for the Florida Keys Tourism Council, said one traveler from Arkansas called because she’d seen pictures of “no swimming” signs. It turned out the signs were from Pensacola, on the other side of the state.

Dan Rowe, CEO of Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his area was “into a pattern where some people have canceled but other people are booking. They’re continuing to look at the forecast and what the spill is doing.”

Others “have moved up their trips here and decided to go ahead and come now while the coast was clear,” he said.

To reward those who do show up, Panama City Beach is launching a “summer-long beach party” with concerts and street festivals, as well as “random acts of appreciation, a thank you to tourists for coming, whether we buy their dinner or pay for a round of mini-golf,” Rowe said.

Story Continues →