Tourism rebounds in Collier, Lee after false fears oil came here

Crowds of beach-goers gather at Lowdermilk Park in Naples on a recent Monday afternoon. Tristan Spinski/Staff

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI // Buy this photo

Crowds of beach-goers gather at Lowdermilk Park in Naples on a recent Monday afternoon. Tristan Spinski/Staff

As of Friday, the claims facility had paid out 7,369 claims valued at nearly $59 million in Collier. In Lee, it had paid 2,697 claims worth more than $26 million.

To read more about local BP oil claims as of mid-April, click on documents below.

— Local beaches never saw a drop of oil from the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the massive spill nearly a year ago still scared visitors away. It didn’t matter that the only oil seen on local beaches was for tanning. Misperceptions ran rampant, leading many would-be visitors to cancel their plans for fear the sand and water would be tainted.

“Considering that we did not have any oil within hundreds of miles in Southwest Florida, the impact was much more significant than I would have anticipated,” said Tamara Pigott, Lee County’s tourism director. “There were cancellations and more importantly if you talk to the hoteliers the phone just stopped ringing.”

It’s hard to measure all of the losses the tourism industry suffered because of the massive spill, which occurred a year ago this week and spewed hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Gulf. But losses are in the millions.

The spill hurt restaurants, hotels and retail shops after tourism took a nosedive. Some local businesses closed, blaming the BP disaster, including Cheeburger Cheeburger and a UFood Grill franchise in the Naples area.

In Lee and Collier counties, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which is handling the BP payments, has paid thousands of claims from businesses and individuals, including hotel workers and restaurant servers and bartenders.

As of Friday, the claims facility had paid out 7,369 claims valued at nearly $59 million in Collier. In Lee, it had paid 2,697 claims worth more than $26 million.

First of a series of reports about this week’s first anniversary of the Gulf oil spill.

Lee and Collier counties recently joined a lawsuit against Transocean Ltd., the owner of the Deepwater Horizon, and are seeking lost tourist taxes and reimbursement for extra dollars their tourism bureaus pumped into emergency advertising to overcome misperceptions about where oil landed. The deadline for cities, counties, states and school districts to join the suit is April 20.

“The national media never really made it clear where the oil was and where it wasn’t,” said Jack Wert, Collier County’s tourism director.

“A lot of governmental agencies are joining to preserve and protect their rights and remedies,” said Frank M. Petosa, with Morgan & Morgan in Broward County, one of the attorneys for plaintiffs in the case against Transocean.

“There’s no filing fee. So it’s an easy thing for them to do on their own,” he said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has balked at joining the suit against Transocean, saying he’d rather negotiate than litigate.

On April 11, the governor announced a $30 million marketing grant from BP to help a handful of counties recover in the Panhandle, the area most affected by the spill after oil reached its shores as peak tourist season was beginning.

“I’m pleased that BP is doing the right thing, and I’m optimistic that with the assistance of this grant the world will know that Florida’s beaches are as beautiful as ever and open for business,” Scott said in a statement.

But he described the grant as “just one small step on the road to recovery.”

“I’m going to continue to hold BP accountable to the Floridians and businesses that lost millions of dollars because of the oil spill,” Scott said.

In Collier, hoteliers lost an estimated 49,474 room nights in July, August and September because of the spill, said Jack Wert, the county’s tourism director. That equates to about $7 million in lost room revenue for hoteliers, many of which have filed their own claims with BP, he said.

Collier County government seeks $450,000 in losses related to the spill.

“It’s primarily bed taxes, with some marketing expenses as well,” Wert said.

“It really hurt European bookings. They turned away from us and looked at other destinations,” said Tamara Pigott, Lee County’s tourism director

The bed taxes – or tourist taxes – are important to Collier County for many reasons. They pay for destination marketing and beach improvements; they support local attractions and tourism-driven events.

Wert estimates the county lost at least $281,706 in tourist taxes and spent about $100,000 on emergency advertising to combat the effects of the spill.

“The national media never really made it clear where the oil was and where it wasn’t,” he said.

Most of the emergency advertising involved TV and radio commercials, and ads online. Advertising was done up North, and in other parts of Florida.

“Most everything was an attempt to overcome the misinformation in the marketplace. There was just as much confusion in the state as there was out of the state,” Wert said.

Collier County filed two other claims, one with BP and the other with Visit Florida in hopes of getting money to soften the blow of the oil spill. It received no money from those claims.

In May 2010, BP awarded the state a $25 million emergency grant for tourism marketing, with most of the money going to Visit Florida — Florida’s tourism marketing arm — for a statewide advertising campaign. Several tourism bureaus in other counties — including Lee and Miami-Dade — received a share of the money, with the largest chunk going to the Panhandle.

Wert learned the money was gone after he sent his letter requesting a share.

In June, Wert asked for $750,000 in BP money for tourism marketing through then- Gov. Charlie Crist, but the money never came.

If the county receives money from its latest claim, it would “take care of most of what we were looking for,” Wert said.

Lee County received $500,000 from the $25 million BP grant awarded to Visit Florida. But the county spent much more than that on an emergency advertising campaign – about $1.25 million, Pigott said.

“It really hurt European bookings,” she said of the spill. “They turned away from us and looked at other destinations.”

Lee lost about $250,000 in tourist development taxes because of the spill, Pigott said. The county charges a 5 percent tax, a penny more than Collier.

In the Transocean suit, Lee County will seek more than $1 million, Pigott said.

The impact of the oil spill in her county has lingered into this year, Pigott said.

She fears that publicity surrounding the one-year anniversary of the disaster will create a negative vibe.

“We have to use this opportunity from my standpoint to remind people that our area didn’t see any oil and no impact,” Pigott said.

In the weeks following the spill last year, the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Spa in Fort Myers Beach saw a 20 percent drop in calls and a 25 percent decline in bookings, said Ellis Etter, the resort’s director of sales and marketing.

“It just started to go down hill from there,” he said. “It’s like when a hurricane hits Florida. People think it’s the entire state.”

The resort – a condominium hotel with 215 rooms – filed a claim with BP.

“We have received from BP one payment, and we just found out we’re getting the rest of what we requested. So they came through for us,” Etter said.

He wouldn’t disclose the amount of his resort’s claim.

The good news, he said, is that the hurt from the spill has lessened with time.

“This year, nobody is talking about the oil,” he said. “Everybody is talking about coming to Southwest Florida and our beautiful beaches and soaking up sun.”

The Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort filed a claim with BP, but hasn’t received a penny, general manager Rick Medwedeff said. However, some of the resort’s workers, who filed claims individually, have gotten payments.

“Politically, BP wanted to respond to individuals’ needs fast,” he said.

Also, he said, the rules make it harder for businesses to apply for claims and get paid. There’s a lengthier review process.

While the disastrous oil spill comes up in conversations from time to time, tourism has turned around in Collier County, Medwedeff said.

“We have seen a reversal and the trends are positive,” he said. “That’s also a function of the economy getting stronger.”

In Collier, tourism took a turn in July, dropping 2.4 percent year-over-year. It continued to decline for several months before rising again in October.

Lee’s tourism industry was having a great 2010 until the oil spill, Pigott said.

Last year, tourism was only up 4 percent from 2009, a down year.

“There was no chance of recovering, given what happened with the oil spill,” Pigott said. “We would love to put this behind us.”

__ Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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