Fears of Oil Soaked Beaches Drive Vacationers Away

"It's a little scary positive," said Anne Banas, executive editor of travel Web site SmarterTravel, who notes that all of these people have a vested interest in tourists arriving regardless of the actual conditions. "A lot of the tourism offices are going to be very positive, but from the consumer perspective do your own research."

Banas advises travelers to check with state health departments, which are responsible for closing beaches, and to read local newspapers online.

In Alabama, which currently seems to be getting the brunt on the oil, the state Department of Public Health has a particularly detailed page, providing people with up-to-date information about beach closures. The Florida Department of Health has also has a special website dedicated to the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Small vacation-rental owners are being hit particularly hard, Banas said.

"It's really telling that they're having trouble booking, even for the Fourth of July," she said. "A lot of people who were going to the beach along the coast are now having second thoughts."

For travelers who still pick a beach town along the Gulf of Mexico, Banas suggests investigating what museums, small towns and theme parks might be nearby, in case the beach is closed. Even ask if the hotel has a pool.

"If you're going for the sole purpose of a beach vacation, you have to at least have your ideas of the ideal beach vacation smashed a bit," she said. "It's going to be hard with kids to say: 'We're going to the beach but there might be tar balls.'"

Banas suggested that some families might even want to consider spending some time volunteering to clean up affected beaches.

"You might not be splashing in the ocean, but you would be helping out," she said.

Numerous hotels and resorts that normally have strict cancelation policies are allowing guests to cancel up to the day before as part of an effort to draw back wary tourists.

The Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort in Destin, Florida, recently changed its cancelation policy, allowing a full refund to guests who cancel seven days or more in advance. If the beach in front of the hotel is closed by city, county, state or federal government authorities, guests can cancel within 24 hours.

Other hotels have a similar policy and travel-booking site Orbitz has even created a special booking section with hotels participating in its "Open Beach Guarantee," allowing refunds and cancelations if the government closes a beach within 20 miles.

Not everybody is hurting. For instance, Port Arthur, Texas, has been reporting many more inquires than usual about rental properties and its beaches, which so far have been largely unaffected by the spill. Beach communities along Florida's Atlantic coast have also reported an increase in tourist inquires.

Tourism-related lawsuits are also already starting to creep in. The Florida law firm Podhurst Orseck just filed two class actions on behalf of a Key West property rental company and a fishing charter blaming BP and others for destroying their businesses.

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