Alabama tourism dollars drop $100M after oil spill


GULF SHORES, Ala. — Tourists spent almost $100 million less visiting Alabama’s main tourist beaches last year than the year before the Gulf oil spill, a tourism official said Friday.

The vice president for the Gulf Shores-Orange Beach tourism agency, Mike Foster, said Friday that $144 million was spent in the Baldwin County beach communities of Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan in 2010. That compares with $241 million in 2009, the year before the spill. The spending figures include money spent at hotels, restaurants and beach-related businesses, such as souvenir shops and beach chair rental stands.

“That is very significant,” Foster said.

He said the decrease showed people, concerned by images of oil- and tar-coated sands, stayed away from the beaches. Tourism plummeted across the coast after BP PLC’s well in the Gulf of Mexico blew out in April, spewing millions of gallons of crude into the sea. Crews spent weeks clearing oil and tar balls from the beaches.

Foster said the number doesn’t include revenues from people who stayed in motels or hotels in nearby communities like Foley or Mobile, or those who made a one-day trip to the shore. He said it also doesn’t include revenue lost from tourists who would have stayed in motels or visited restaurants across Alabama on their way to the Gulf Coast.

The loss is probably worse than the numbers show because many merchants, hotels and motels offered large discounts to spur business, Foster said.

The Alabama Attorney General’s Office has filed a lawsuit seeking to recover revenue lost by the spill. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Luther Strange, Jessica Garrison, said the tourism figures would be an important part of the overall assessment of damages to the state caused by the oil spill. She said Strange is working with Gov. Robert Bentley to determine Alabama’s total economic loss as a result of the oil spill.

State tourism officials said 1 million fewer people visited Alabama’s beaches in 2010 than in 2009. That figure was part of an annual report on the state’s top tourist attractions.

The report said 3.6 million people visited Alabama beaches in 2010 compared with 4.6 million 2009. While the number of visitors to attractions on the Gulf was down, other attractions across the state showed an increase in visitors in 2010.

Gulf State Park alone recorded 300,000 fewer visitors in 2010 than the previous year.

Advance bookings suggest more people will visit the coast this year, but the numbers aren’t likely to hit 2009 levels, Foster said.

“I hope that people who come for spring break take the message home that everything is fine,” Foster said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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