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Touring the Gulf: Alabama

EDITOR'S NOTE: NRN's Southwest bureau chief Ron Ruggless has embarked on a state-by-state look at how the Gulf Coast oil spill has affected restaurateurs who call the area home. Tourism is down and the seafood supply is short following the devastating oil spill, but the entrepreneurial spirit that drives these operators hasn't dimmed. In today's piece, Ruggless reports from Alabama. His next and final stop: Florida. View the full report here.

The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has taken its toll on tourism during the high travel months of May to September, and Alabama’s coastal restaurants are feeling the pinch.

Some restaurants along Alabama’s coast “are really struggling right now,” said Johnny Fisher, general manager of LuLu’s at Homeport Marina, which is owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of “Margaritaville” singer Jimmy Buffett. “And our community is definitely struggling.”

Figures on the nearly three-month-old oil spill’s economic impact on tourism are a challenge to verify. BBVA Compass, a financial services company, said in a May report that the Gulf oil spill could lead potential vacationers this year to take $167 million in tourism dollars elsewhere. The Gulf county of Baldwin, home to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, makes up about a quarter of Alabama's $9 billion tourism industry.

That pales next to Florida, which has a $100 billion tourism industry and stands to lose $3 billion because of the oil spill, the BBVA Compass report said.

“We’re defying gravity,” Fisher said of customer traffic at the 500-seat LuLu’s in Gulf Shores, Ala. He said the restaurant has been boosted by the owner’s brother performing a recent impromptu concert in the complex, which includes a stage for entertainment and an extensive grounds and shops on the inner-coastal waterway.

To ease customer concerns, all of LuLu’s servers are given sheets of information about where LuLu’s seafood is from so they can answer customer questions, said Fisher, who in the past seven years with LuLu’s has tried to source most of the restaurant’s ingredients locally. That includes the restaurant’s 62,000 tomatoes annually and grass-fed beef for the 110,000 cheeseburgers sold each year.

“People are deciding to vacation elsewhere just because of the fears,” Fisher said. Some oil has stained the pristine white beaches and tar balls have shown up, but cleanup crews work to clean the beaches nearly around the clock.

Some parents, he added, are seeing the oil spill as an opportunity to bring their children to visit and teach them how to become part of the solution to problems in passive “voluntourism.”

“We need your support more than ever,” he said. “We really need the support of tourism.”

Fisher said the staff early on during the spill began thanking all the customers for making the choice to visit Gulf Shores.

“The hospitality has never been finer,” he said.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].

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