By Victor Xu
Although her family traveled to Florida relatively frequently in past years, senior Andrea Czarnick said the oil spill is a major factor in her family choosing not to travel to the Gulf Coast states this spring break. Instead, she and her family will visit Hawaii for the upcoming spring break.
“Last year we were happy we went down to the Gulf shores in Florida, and my dad was happy that we were able to fit it in,” Czarnick said. “They took us down to the ocean right before the spill happened. We might have gone this year, but we’re going somewhere else for spring break, somewhere warmer and cleaner.”
Jonathon Day, professor at the Purdue Tourism and Hospitality Research Center, said tourism to the Gulf Coast states will most likely be adversely affected by the oil spill. The tourism industry there commands a large proportion of the economy. A report by Oxford Economics estimated that tourism in 2010 along the Gulf was worth $34 billion per year and employed more than 400,000 people.
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico last April 20 tore open a well that released up to 185 million gallons of crude oil, making it the largest unintentional oil spill in history, according to a New York Times article published in February. Although the oil well was sealed on July 15, and the majority of the surface oil has dissipated, the long-term effects are still in question.
“There was concern that if the oil spill problems continued, it might cost $22.7 billion over a period of several years,” Day said.
According to Czarnick, she and her family could not be positive of what aftereffects still existed. According to the New York Times article, 75 percent of surface oil evaporated by August 2010, but several long-term effects may remain for decades. Layers of oil are still being found on the ocean floor and under the sand, and it is unknown what effect the dissolved toxic chemicals in crude oil will have on deep waters and the ecology, according to the same article.
Still, Day said he believes the tourism prospects for this spring are relatively promising. The New York Times article reports that studies show the spill’s effect on marshes, wildlife and the waters will not be as damaging as previously expected. Day said most of the beaches are in acceptable condition.
“At this time we can be optimistic,” Day said. “Many destinations have spent the last few months with webcams and other promotion to show they’re in good shape. Locals and frequent visitors who have been to beaches also tell that story to potential visitors, and so the ‘word of mouth’ about the quality of the beaches has been very positive.”
Day went on to say that travel indicators are also pointing to a strong spring break season for tourism in the southern states. The New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated a turnout of over one million to celebrate Mardis Gras on March 9, the most in a decade. Day said there were also reports that booking through online travel agencies to destinations such as Panama City, FL are significantly up from last year.
Junior Nicholas Lynn said he had little concern about the Gulf oil spill and plans to travel to Mexico during spring break and Florida over the summer. He usually travels to Florida once or twice per year and said his family does not intend to change its plans this year.
“From what I’ve heard, it’s cleaned up, the place isn’t as bad as it initially was and the beaches are safe to swim in now,” Lynn said. He added later that the only precaution he might take would be to swim closer to the Atlantic side of Florida if necessary.
Although reports and projected statistics about the turnout in the Gulf Coast states have emerged, Day said he believes travelers’ thoughts will ultimately determine the effect of the oil spill on spring break tourism.
“The key issues will be whether people perceive that the beach destinations of the gulf are clean and ready to welcome visitors,” Day said. “We’ll know for sure in a couple of weeks.”