(CNN) — The leading edge of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was still several miles off the beaches of the Florida Panhandle on Thursday morning, but the slick was already hitting the area’s wallets.
“The phones just basically stopped ringing in the past couple of weeks for new bookings this summer,” said Laura Lee, a spokeswoman for the Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spotted oil sheen about six miles off Navarre Beach, east of Pensacola, on Thursday morning, according to the state Division of Emergency Management. Any oil that hits shore is likely to have been weathered into balls or mats of tar, or mixed with seawater in a pudding-like “mousse,” the agency reported.
As of late Thursday morning, no oil or tar balls had washed up, said Buck Lee, executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority in Pensacola Beach. Lee, who is not related to Laura Lee, said the area had just had a “super” Memorial Day weekend — but now, “We’re just waiting anxiously to see what happens,” he added.
Laura Lee said a wave of hotel cancellations hit the island in late April, after the sinking of the offshore drill rig Deepwater Horizon uncapped an undersea oil well off Louisiana. Those tapered off soon afterward, she said — “But this week, there’s been another wave of cancellations,” Laura Lee said.
Hotels have responded to the threat by easing cancellation policies. “Some had guarantees that they would get their money back if there was oil,” she said.
In addition, charter fishing — another big business in the area — has been hurt. Some skippers have gone to work for oil company BP, which has hired boats to help lay protective booms and skim oil off the surface of the Gulf.
Tourism pumped about $1.2 billion into the Escambia County economy in 2009, employing roughly 20,000 people and bringing about 3.5 million overnight visitors a year, according to tourism officials. Early July brings two of its biggest annual events — the Independence Day holiday and the following weekend’s Pensacola Beach air show, which features the locally based Navy aerobatic team, the Blue Angels. Faced with those concerns, the locals are trying to harness the power of technology and social media to offset the threat.
“We’re encouraging our visitors who are currently here to post their vacation pictures on Facebook, and a lot of them have done that just so that visitors can see with their own eyes the oil hasn’t hit,” Laura Lee said.
And Buck Lee said the island authority hopes to put cameras on the beach and video streaming on the internet within about two weeks, “so they can see for themselves whether there’s oil on the beach or not.”
“And there may be,” he said. “But we’ve got to get them the facts.”