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Touring the Gulf: Florida

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. After visiting Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Ruggless made his final stop in Florida. View the full report here.

Swarms of people head to the sugar-white beaches on Florida’s Panhandle early each morning, but unlike the typical summer tourists these beachgoers are dressed in green T-shirts and orange safety vests.

As tar balls from the Gulf oil spill have begun washing ashore from Pensacola Beach to Panama City, BP-employed cleanup workers hit the beaches nearly as often as board-shorted and bikini-wearing tourists.

Because of that damage, many longtime Gulf tourists who head to what is often fondly called “The Redneck Riviera” have this year decided to make plans elsewhere for fear the oil disaster will ruin their days at the beach.

“The impact is tragic,” said Jimmy Patronis, owner of the Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant & Waterfront Market in Panama City, Fla. “We have clean beaches. The perception of Florida is that we have oil on our beaches.”

That perception has led to a significant drop in tourism, including meals visitors would have eaten in restaurants.

“The numbers in Bay County are a solid 20 percent down since the first satellite truck showed up the third week of June,” said Patrois, who is also a Florida representative. “It is hard to blame tourists when they consider another market because of the perception.”

Curtis Brewer, manager at The Oar House on Bayou Chico in Pensacola, Fla., said business is down between 30 and 35 percent from a typical July. The Oar House, with a marina location on a bayou in the city, typically garners a majority of locals, Brewer said. Restaurants on the beach are off as much as 50 percent from a usual summer month, he added.

The oil spill cleanup efforts also are luring away experienced restaurant employees, Brewer said.

“People are going to work for BP, because BP is paying $20 an hour,” he said.

Hotels are especially hard hit in what are traditionally peak months for tourism, with some occupancies down between 50 and 70 percent.

“This is the time they go into the black,” Brewer said, “and it’s not happening.”

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist last month requested an additional $50 million from BP to help market and advertise tourism for the state. Crist told BP America that the oil spill continued to threaten Florida’s tourism, which had a $65.2 billion direct impact on Florida’s economy in 2008.

In May, BP made a $25 million grant to Florida for tourism advertising, which the state has already spent, Crist said. The governor said in his request: “As we have worked to put those tourism advertising dollars to work, we have seen every dollar spent allows Florida businesses to stay open, Floridians to keep their jobs and families to worry less about how to pay their bills.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].

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