- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 15, 2010

George Govignon and his family usually vacation each summer on the Gulf, “somewhere between Destin and Panama City” in Florida.

But this year, Govignon, his wife, two kids and in-laws are heading to Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“The biggest thing was fear of tar balls,” said Govignon, a lawyer from Calhoun, Ga. “We figured we’d be better off on the Atlantic Coast.”

Mr. Govignon is among thousands of vacationers changing plans because of the oil spill. Some are heading to favorite beaches earlier than usual, worried that oil may wash up later in the season. Some are booking last-minute to make sure beaches are still OK. But others are taking no chances on a forecast like “sunny with a chance of tar balls,” so they’re going elsewhere, from Cape Cod to Costa Rica.

Arwen Delvecchio, marketing manager at CapeCodRentals.com in Orleans, Mass., said she’s been getting calls from Southerners canceling trips to the Gulf, trying “to get as far away as possible” from the oil.

Because some of them have never been to Cape Cod before, they require some education: Warm, calm water means staying on the bay side, not the ocean. And no, $1,400 a week will not get you a three-bedroom on the water.

“That’s just unheard of,” Ms. Delvecchio said.

So some customers on a budget are settling for smaller, less upscale lodging than they’d get on the Gulf for the same price — a five-minute drive from the beach instead of across the street.

Michael Brown of Mead Brown, a vacation rental company in Costa Rica, said his company also had “many inquiries and bookings from families … who typically vacation on the Florida panhandle or in Mexico, but because of the oil spill or perceived safety issues in Mexico, they are coming to Costa Rica.”

Among them is Jody Bailey, who lives in Gulfport, Miss. He usually vacations in Seaside, Fla., with his wife and teenage children.

“This year due to the scare of all the oil hitting the shore and the onslaught of potential pollution for the beach, we’re going to Costa Rica instead,” he said.

The teens are looking forward to ziplining and jungle adventures, but Mr. Bailey hopes to return to Florida eventually.

“It’s a family tradition, since I was a little kid,” he said. “My parents went there as well. I just hope we get the beaches clean.”

To hang on to potential visitors, a significant number of hotels and rental condos in the Gulf have adopted “worry-free cancellation policies,” said Kathy Torian, a spokeswoman for Visit Florida, the state tourism agency.

“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 VisitFlorida.com/FloridaLive 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.

The destination has yet to get tar balls or a sheen on the water, though a metal container from the wrecked oil rig did wash up and was removed.

In the Keys, Newman said hotel occupancy has been strong since late May, but very last-minute.

“People are very apprehensive about making long-term reservations until they see a resolution where they put the plug in the hole at the bottom of the ocean,” he said.