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SE beaches look to woo tourists in oil spill limbo

May 11, 2010 4:53:00 AM - thestate.com
Daydreams of beach sunsets have been replaced by anxious Internet checks for many vacationers headed to the Gulf Coast, while hotel clerks there are busy answering calls about a massive oil spill and whether - just maybe - there's a shot at a refund. The answer is typically no.

Meanwhile, the phones are also steadily ringing for tourism officials hundreds of miles away at Atlantic Coast beaches like Hilton Head Island, S.C., as they delicately try to lure vacationers away without appearing to profit from the disaster.

The angst is caused by the millions of gallons of oil that have spewed from a well at the ocean floor since an offshore drilling rig exploded in the Gulf on April 20, killing 11 people. Balls of tar began washing up on the white sand beaches of Alabama's Dauphin Island over the weekend, while amounts ranging from globules to an oily sheen were coming ashore to the west.

Tourism officials from Louisiana to Florida - and their customers - are anxiously watching to see where else the slick could come ashore. Vacationers who have already booked are tracking the spill online, and many have been told they'll face a steep penalty for backing out.

Karen Muehlfelt tried to cancel her upcoming trip to Destin, Fla., but couldn't stomach the $1,000 penalty. Her beachfront hotel assured her there were plenty of onshore activities, such as good golf courses and restaurants.