DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. — Fireworks displays have been canceled. White-sand beaches that should be crowded with sunbathers are instead dotted with cleanup workers, booms and sand-sifting equipment. Normally packed hotels are trying to fill rooms ahead of what is a crucial weekend for beach businesses.
Across the oil-stained Gulf Coast, it’s going to be a glum Fourth of July.
“We got hit right between the eyes in June. July is starting to look like a total disaster,” moaned hotel owner Julian MacQueen, who said his 181-room Hampton Inn in Pensacola Beach, Fla., should be booked solid but is only 70 percent occupied, even with rooms reduced from $225 a night last year to as little as $150.
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And those who make their living from tourism have a longer-term fear: that the vacationers who find other destinations this year will never return.
At Souvenir City in Gulf Shores, Ala., owner Paul Johnson said the number of customers walking through the giant shark’s-mouth entrance of his store to buy such things as T-shirts, flip-flops, hermit crabs, seashells and other beach kitsch is down by about half from last year.
“People who have been coming here for 20 or 30 years and went to Destin or Myrtle Beach or wherever may say, ‘Hey, we went there and really liked it. That’s our place now,'” Johnson said, referring to spots in Florida and South Carolina.
The stakes are high for the hotels, motels, restaurants, souvenir shops and ice cream stands along the beaches of what is affectionately known as the Redneck Riviera.
“The Fourth of July is a key, key component,” said Chris Thompson, president and CEO of Visit Florida, which promotes tourism in the state. “It’s one of the most critical weekends,” when many businesses make the bulk of their summer tourism income.
Tourism officials say there have been numerous hotel cancellations across the coast. About 25 percent of all rooms in the Pensacola Bay area were still vacant on Friday, said Ed Schroeder, director of the convention and visitors bureau. Last year, hotel occupancy was 100 percent at the start of the holiday weekend.
The oil spill will probably ruin the holiday for Kenny DiNero, who runs a dockside bait and tackle shop in Ocean Springs, Miss. Normally on the Fourth, the waters off Mississippi are full of boats. People fish and stop on islands to swim and have cookouts.
This year, “all the islands are closed because of the spill. There won’t be any fuel sold. There won’t be any ice sold. There won’t be any bait sold. And there won’t be any damn fishing,” DiNero said. “Normally on the Fourth I do $10,000 to $15,000 in sales. This weekend I’ll be lucky to do $500.”
Many businesses are fighting the misperception that every stretch of beach is coated in oil.
Pensacola Beach is doing its best to make its sands presentable. About 1,300 BP employees and county crews are working overnight to clean whatever oil washes up during high tide. By most mornings, the tourist sections are largely clean, with only orange and brown stains in the sand left behind.
Visitors like Laura Barbier of Dallas said they have been pleasantly surprised. She said her family has been visiting the Gulf Coast every summer for 15 years. They almost didn’t come this year because of the oil.
“I’m glad we did,” she said, stepping on a gooey tar ball that rolled in with a wave. “It’s not as bad as the news made it sound.”
In Alabama’s Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island, there isn’t much to celebrate this Independence Day, with tar staining the beaches and livelihoods on the brink. Dauphin Island’s new public beach has been converted into a staging area for the cleanup. Both communities have canceled their fireworks displays.
“With this happening, tourism is dead. We just didn’t feel the whole atmosphere was conducive to a fireworks show,” said Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier. “People just aren’t in the mood.”
He added: “Maybe when this is over we’ll have something to celebrate. Maybe Labor Day?”