1 year after spill, families clamor for beach vacations
Buck Lee, executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, said that Pensacola Beach is “the cleanest it’s ever been” and that tourism seems to have bounced back after the oil spill.
“Our February retail sales, including hotels, restaurants and souvenirs, were up 50 percent from February last year,” Lee said. “Right now our beach is gorgeous, the water’s fine, people are catching pompano off the pier…we want to keep it going.”
Lee said that hotels and rental homes on the beach have had more advance reservations than ever before.
Sandy Zimmer, a Luling resident, visited Pensacola Beach just weeks after oil washed ashore on that beach last year. But Zimmer said that the clean-up effort was already going so well that her family was still able to enjoy their vacation.
“The water was great, the beach was wonderful, we had a great time and we’d love to go back,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer said she has heard nothing but good news from her sister who lives in Gulf Breeze, just outside of Pensacola Beach.
“I’ve heard that certain locations have seen some isolated oil or tar balls, but my sister…says the beaches are great - there’s no problem,” Zimmer said.
She is already planning to revisit the beach this summer.
The Destin area is another popular beach location for vacations.
Cristalle Poche, a Norco resident, stays in condos in Destin with five or six other local families each year, and this year is no exception.
Poche said she is not worried at all about oil being on Destin beaches. In fact, last year her group visited the white sands just weeks after the oil spill and saw very little damage.
But not all locals were able to deal with the possibility of oil on Florida beaches last year. Des Allemands resident Earl Matherne had to cancel his annual family trip to Sandestin because he didn’t want to take a chance having his young daughter in what he heard were oiled waters.
Nicole Scott, public relations associate with Emerald Coast, said that Destin never had a big issue with the oil and she hopes that tourists will return in full-force this year.
“We suffered a big hit financially, not environmentally, and there’s a big difference,” Scott said. “We lost a lot of tourism dollars because of the oil spill.”
She said that many people believe that since oil washed ashore in Pensacola, it must have washed up on Destin and Fort Walton beaches.
“It’s a misconception we are fighting really hard to correct,” Scott said.
Scott said that Destin beaches are as pristine as ever and those who don’t believe it can look at untouched recent photos of the sand and water at www.emeraldcoastfl.com. She said that sometimes very small tar balls will wash ashore, but that the beaches are cleaned daily and the balls are usually too small to notice.
Scott said that a lot of events, including concerts and sports tournaments, are planned to try to draw crowds to the beach this summer.
Matherne said that his family will be returning to Sandestin this year unless he sees new evidence that the beaches are in bad shape.
Stephen Romano, who works for St. Charles Planning and Zoning, said that the oil did not keep him away from Destin last year and it will not keep him away this year.
“It matters not to (my family) that the beaches could be tainted. We don’t care,” Romano said. “In fact, if the negative perception affects the asking price for condo rentals, we see it as an advantage that we intend to indulge.”
Grand Isle beaches open for business
Those who like to fish and crab can feel comfortable heading to Grand Isle for some fun in the sun.
While Elmers Island is still closed for oil spill clean-up activities, Jan Scardino, with the Mayor’s office, said that Grand Isle is in excellent condition.
“The beaches are open and we hope people will start coming down,” Scardino said.
Scardino said that tar balls will sometimes wash ashore, but that clean-up crews immediately remove them. She also said that tar balls washing ashore has never been very unusual for the area, even before the oil spill.
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