Gulf Coast Campgrounds Coping with Oil Spill
Campgrounds and RV resorts along the Gulf of Mexico — along with the communities in which they are located — are fighting the perception that the BP oil spill has fouled beaches to the point that they can't be used.
That, they report, is simply not the case.
"Right now, we have a media problem, not an oil problem," said Julian MacQueen, owner of Perdido RV Resort in Perdido Key, Fla., an island on the Intercoastal Waterway 10 blocks from the Gulf in the Florida Panhandle. "But it goes back to the old adage that perception is reality. There's a sense that the beaches are full of oil. They are not."
Because of the constant hammering by the national media, MacQueen maintained that business in mid-June at Perdido RV Resort is off 20% from the same time a year ago. "The oil probably is going to come, yes," he said. "But it's not here yet."
BP's Deep Horizon oil platform exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and creating an oil gusher that the company has had a difficult time controlling.
To combat the perception, many Gulf Coast tourism bureaus and businesses are offering tourist discounts and "clean-beach guarantees" promising that if any beaches are closed due to the oil spill, guests can receive 100% of their reservation deposit back.
At Campers Inn in Panama City Beach, with 97 RV sites 300 feet off the Gulf in the Florida Panhandle, co-Manager Jennifer Hagler, said callers inquiring about conditions in mid-June are referred to a live Internet feed (www.pcbeach.org) of the local beaches set up by the Panama Beach Chamber of Commerce.
"We do not have any oil right now and we do not expect to have any oil," Hagler said. "People are concerned, and we are having some cancellations. But for every cancellation we get, we have two more people who call for reservations."
While the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) is standing by to assist Gulf Coast members any with public relations issues that may surface, the organization has had no takers yet. "We haven't heard much from the parks down there at all," said ARVC President Linda Profaizer.
Still, ARVC Chairman David L. Berg, owner of Red Apple Campground in Arundel, Maine, said the national association "obviously is very concerned" about the effect of the spill on campgrounds in the area.
"But it's not just the campgrounds (that are affected)," he said. "The camper is hurt more than one way. If a camper goes down to the sea coast area, they can't fish or go sight seeing on the ocean because providers don't want to take their equipment into that water."
"Obviously, the campground and resorts on the coast have been affected," said Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the ARVC state affiliates in Florida and Alabama, adding that the owner of one campground in the Dustin, Fla., who didn't want to be identified, reported occupancy in mid-June down 30% from last year.
"They are experiencing some severe losses and June and July are looking worse than May," Cornwell said.
In Sarasota, Fla., on the Sunshine State's West Coast, the 1,500-site Sun-N-Fun RV Resort, had seen no effect from the spreading oil slick or resultant publicity, according to Cornwell. "In all reality, the beaches are fine," Cornwell said. "There are some small tar balls washing but, it's minor."
Further down the Florida coast in Punta Gorda, Gerald German, manager of 166-site Alligator Park, is "not particularly worried" about the tourism impact of the spill. "There's no sign of oil yet," German said, "but there is a general concern because of a lot of uncertainty."
Occupancy at Anchors Aweigh RV Resort in Foley, Ala., seven miles north of the Gulf Coast, was down in May shortly after the oil rig collapse, but had picked up by early June. "Most of the cancellations (at Anchors Aweigh) have been from customers outside the state," Cornwell reported.
Following the April explosion, Bella Terra Realty Holdings LLC, operator of Bella Terra of Gulf Shores, a motorhome resort in Foley, took it upon itself to coordinate a volunteer cleanup effort.
However, after signing up 5,000 volunteers, only 250 were chosen by BP to work on beach cleanup. "We have stopped signing up names," said Tripp Keber, Bella Terra COO. "There is some very rigorous training involved. You can't just go down to the beach and start working."
Bella Terra also is donating 10% of its net proceeds from sales and rentals to the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program that has set up the Coastal Estuary Restoration Fund to help clean up the Alabama coast. "It's not tens of thousands of dollars, but it's thousands, and it will help," Keber said.
With regard to lot sales at Bella Terra, Keber said that people who have signed contracts. in some cases, 'now want to wait-and-see what happens."
He said, however, that Bella Terra customers typically aren't beach-goers. "Most of our guests just sit and relax at the resort," he said. "But having it (headlines about the offshore drilling mishap)in your face all the time doesn't help."
Like MacQueen in Florida, Keber is of a mind that media coverage has hurt the Gulf region, even as cleanup crews are working to remove tar balls that have washed up on Gulf Shore and Orange beaches. "The press didn't create the situation, but the 24-hour CNN live feed of oil bubbling up is not helping us," he said.
In Biloxi, Miss., Lois Shoemaker, co-owner of Oakland RV Park, a 49-site campground eight miles from the Gulf that opened in 2008, said that weekly reservations slacked off after the oil spill. "We had built up a lot of weekly visitors, but they've slacked off," she said. "Reservations have picked up a little bit this week, but not for any more than a night or so."
Robert Castoro, owner of Bay Marina and RV in Bay St. Louis, Miss., said "business is off, there's no doubt about that."
While the 35-site park remains occupied, mostly with full-time rentals, ancillary business traffic associated with the marina has been hurt. "The weekend fishing is off," Castoro said. "People just aren't showing up to buy ice and bait."
He's also skeptical that very much money in the $20 billion escrow account BP is setting up will reach people like him.
"Mr. Obama says he's going to make BP pay," Castoro said. "That means the government will get it all. The little guy won't get anything."
The situation, meanwhile, is apparently affecting campgrounds hundreds of miles from the Gulf Coast that normally serve as way stations for travelers.
"We are a stop for people from Indiana, Michigan and Ohio who are heading to the Gulf," said Shirley Hale, co-owner with her husband, Warren, of 75-site Cullman Campground 300 miles north of the Gulf in Cullman, Ala. "We are not seeing many people going in that direction with children who are taking vacations, it seems like. But our business is holding."
On the Western side of the Gulf, Texas campgrounds had not been affected by mid-June, according to Brian Schaeffer, executive director of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).
"We've had no issues," Schaeffer said. "Fortunately — or unfortunately — everything is going the other direction."
Schaeffer said that shortly after the oil spill state and local officials met to look at cautionary measures. "The big concern for us is that we are in hurricane season and if we have a hurricane, all bets are off. We have no idea where it would go," Schaeffer said.