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Suntan oil, BP oil - both are on vacationers' minds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2010 - Suntan oil is typically on the minds of most St. Louis area residents who make the Florida panhandle a regular vacation destination. But this year, BP oil is shaping their plans as well.

With news of the Gulf oil spill a constant reminder, and pictures of the spreading slick not exactly the kinds of images that tourism boards like to see, resorts and rental property owners are working to put the best possible face on the crisis.

But for some loyal vacationers, this is the year to head for a different destination.

Jim Ryan, a St. Louis native and owner of a condo in Destin, a very popular spot for St. Louis vacationers, said that about half of his summer clientele has called to cancel over the past 10 days.

"We have just been getting hammered with cancellations," he said. "People are afraid."

While oil has not yet hit the beach by his condo, predictions of its impact ward off many guests who previously had booked the condo for the summer.

"This year was looking to be as good or better than the last despite the economy," he said. "It is devastating. It's such a beautiful place, a beautiful beach."

The uncertainty is hitting more than condo owners.

"At this point nobody knows what's happening down the road for sure," said Lynne Meyer, vice president and general manager of Brentwood Travel. "Until and if the oil does wash ashore, no one knows what the repercussions will be."

To ease people's minds -- and lessen the possible impact on their pocketbooks -- some resorts have changed their cancellation policies.

In Seaside, Fla., for example, just south of Destin, the Cottage Rental Agency will let people cancel the day before their stay if the beaches are closed --- without any penalty.

Jon Ervin, the agency's director of public relations and marketing, said some people had even rebooked after canceling their vacations in the immediate wake of the BP oil spill announcement.

The Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort has a Gulf of Mexico update on its website and also a message about its own 24-hour cancellation policy. But spokeswoman Laurie Hobbs says that so far -- as evidenced by the resort's beach cam -- the oil spill has not affected guests' ability to enjoy the sand and surf.

"We have been very communicative with our guests and have been posting things online," she said. "We have had fewer cancellations than anticipated. We had a very popular Memorial Day, ahead of our forecast, and last weekend we were ahead of our forecast as well."

To make sure their guests enjoy themselves, Hobbs said the resort has added attractions like a carousel and a ropes course. But she was quick to add that the main attraction is still available.

"We can guarantee guests a water experience and water fun no matter what," she said.

What's likely to happen next? That depends on the currents and the winds, Hobbs said.

"Right now, conditions seem to be in our favor," she said, "but I can tell you that our community is prepared. This is the highest thing on our list right now. We are doing everything we can to ensure our guest have a great experience once they get here.

"Calls have been way up, customers' questions have been way up, and that communication process has been accelerated. We are getting many more calls than we have in the past. People are doing their research, looking at the web cam and calling back and booking -- at least some of them are."

Still, many people have looked at the news and the forecast and decided to avoid the area altogether.

"I'm getting clients coming into my agency and saying other than the gulf coast where can I go for my family vacation?" said Gig Gwin of Gwin's Travel.

"People are very sensitive about spending their money to (possibly) lie on a beach of oil."

Lauren Weber, a student at Georgetown University, is a summer intern at the Beacon. 

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