Oil spill impacts local ecotourism
SUN PHOTO/CINDY LANE
Ecotourists watch dolphins aboard Lil’ Toot,
a Cortez ecotour charter boat.
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, residents and tourists have headed to the water with more enthusiasm now that oil endangers it, local ecotourism business owners say.
At Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures in Anna Maria, owner David Wells said that more people are signing up for guided kayak tours.
“In their minds, it may be their last time,” he said, adding that he and his wife are planning sunset trips to the beach themselves for the same reason.
The oil has prompted some people to visit who have intended to do so for a long time and now have a more urgent reason, like a customer from Florida’s east coast who always wanted to see the west coast, and decided, “Let’s do it; it might be the last chance to see it like that,” he said.
Randy Stewart of Lil’ Toot charters in Cortez has a customer arriving this week who has booked a trip every day “because they may not get the chance again,” he said, adding that business is good because most people know the oil has not affected this area.
Some visitors who planned their vacation later in the summer are moving it up because of the uncertainty of whether and when the oil may arrive, Wells said, like a Michigan family who visited in June instead of their usual July.
Beach Bums rentals in Anna Maria had an inquiry from Atlanta visitors who usually travel later in summer and are coming earlier this year, Diane Havelka said. Business is steady, as most summer visitors are from Florida, and they know the oil is not here yet, she said, partly due to efforts by local tourism officials to promote clean beaches and water.
Because customers know the area is clean, the summer has been normal so far for Coastal Water Sports rentals in Bradenton Beach, Beth Cole agreed.
The poor economy rather than the oil spill has prompted people to visit the outdoors instead of taking a vacation elsewhere, said Karen Fraley, of Around the Bend Nature Tours, which offers a summer program including bird watching on Anna Maria’s nesting beach, shelling and netting crustaceans.
At Sea Trek Divers in Bradenton Beach, Lorraine Athas said that a customer who had dive reservations in August called to cancel due to fears about the oil, but she told her to keep her reservation because there would be no penalty for canceling if the oil arrives by then, a strategy recommended by tourism officials.
At Native Rentals/Native Sports, people are not making advance reservations as much as they used to, but walk-in customers are keeping business up, owner Shawn Duytschaver said.
However, Joe Praetor, owner of Just 4 Fun Rentals, is losing business from Europeans who have cancelled their trips. Even if hoteliers and landlords like himself offer full refunds if the oil strikes, European visitors can’t afford to lose the cost of their airline flights, he said.
“People ask, can we guarantee that there won’t be oil on the beach in four weeks? I can’t guarantee that,” he said.
Mote Marine has not noticed a difference in visitor numbers, vice president Dan Bebak said. However, registration for its summer camp is the second highest ever, according to Tim Oldread, director of Mote’s Center for School and Public Programs, who said he doesn’t know whether the increased interest is related to the oil spill, but is notable because camp registrations elsewhere are down.
Potential visitors should check Mote’s Beach Conditions Report before traveling, Bebak said. The report is online at http://coolgate.mote.org/beachconditions/.