Florida welcomes more than 80million visitors each year and, unsurprisingly, tourism is big business. But since the giant oil slick began to near the coastline of the Sunshine State, hotels, restaurants and dive companies have been witnessing cancellations left, right and centre. Perhaps the greatest threat to Florida’s tourism industry is the media and not the BP oil spill – an event which is being named the largest attack on the environment in the world. Here are the latest reports from the affected areas and the main message; don’t let it spoil your holiday!
What’s going on?
There are some graphic images of clogged coastlines, large-scale clean-up projects and sea birds covered in oil littering our newspapers, televisions and inboxes. These are from the hard hit Louisiana wetlands region, an area abundant in wildlife. As feared, the spill recently leaked into the Loop Current which travels in a clockwise direction and will drive the oil east, trickling down to southern Florida. Yet Florida’s tourist websites are thrusting real-time video footage of clean, white sandy beaches in our faces. So what’s your holiday to the area really going to look like?
All but a select few of Northwest Florida’s beaches are closed for swimming. This includes the stretch between the Alabama Florida border and Johnson Beach in Perdido Key. The neighbouring Pensacola Bay and resorts further east are still open for business looking bright and sunny, but with a few unwelcome visitors.
The most commonly reported incidents are of tar balls washing up along the shores around Fort Walton, Destin and Panama City beach. On Facebook, Jacquelyn Ralls says of Pensacola, “no smell, I am local, and the beaches are beautiful, there may be few tar balls in the water, just pay attention”. There are many similar ‘get on with it’ attitudes from bloggers and tweeters. Most, resolutely and without fuss, say to ignore these oil globules and refer to hygiene guidelines which advise that they ‘do not pose a health risk to the average person; just don’t pick them up’.
Now, I don’t fancy swimming amongst congealed oil but equally this is a million miles away from holiday hell. Clean-up teams are quick off the mark and skimmer boats patrol the area close to shore, collecting most of these unsightly blemishes before they reach the beach.
The real casualties of this disaster are the fishing communities and the wildlife. Certainly in Louisiana the wetlands around the Mississippi River estuary have experienced heavy oiling especially around Grand Isle, where major clean-up operations have been taking place. Many of these marshes are nurseries of shrimp, oysters and crabs, making Louisiana the leading producer of commercial seafood in the US. The effect on local fishermen has been disastrous since this region of the gulf is closed to fishing while recreational anglers are permitted a ‘catch and throw back’ licence. There have been no reports to the north of Venice in Breton Sound, which suggests the oil remains out at sea and the area is, at present, a worthy tourist attraction.
New Orleans has, so far, been largely unaffected by this oil spill. While much of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina remains, the only evidence to suggest the city has suffered from this disaster comes in the form of graffiti slurs against politicians and BP’s handling of the situation. However, the fishing industry is one of the biggest earners in Louisiana and with major fishing zones closed, unemployment is rife. If the tourists stop visiting, New Orleans will be very hard hit.
Islands Suffer Second Blow
There are a number of lakes surrounding the city including Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne, which is open to the sea but has so far not been affected. The islands out to sea act, somewhat grimly, as deflectors, protecting the mainland further north. Smugglers Cove, Ship Island Harbour and Horn Island are all inhabited by Manatee grass, dunes and a host of migratory birds but are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. The coastline to the north has seen light tar balls and light oiling along to the Mississippi and Alabama border. Trajectory estimates show light oil to be only 15-20 miles out to sea but a growing threat to the area.