AMERICAN RESILIENCE: A decade after recovering from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that left their beaches covered in tar, Gulf towns face another existential threat — the coronavirus pandemic
Tourism along the Gulf of Mexico came to a screeching halt in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill covered Texas, Lousiana, Alabama, and Florida resort towns' once-pristine beaches with tar. Tourism eventually recovered and exceeded its pre-spill levels, thanks in part to BP's aggressive cleanup program and national advertising scheme. Almost exactly a decade later, the area's hotels and condos face another existential threat — from the coronavirus crisis and they are already showing signs of recovery even as the number of cases continues to skyrocket.
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In April 2010, an explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig pumped crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for five months, covering Lousiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida beaches with tar, and effectively canceling tourism for much of the summer. In June, July, and August, the Gulf coast's beach towns typically bring in 60% of their revenue, per The Pensacola News Journal. But between June and September 2010, the 90 mile stretch of oceanfront metro areas between Pensacola and Panama City, Florida lost $150 million in tourism each month. The region's tourism industry was able to quickly recover thanks in part to an aggressive advertising campaign by BP that lured new visitors from across the country. A decade later, the Gulf's hotel operators, restaurant owners, and tour companies are fighting to stay in business through yet another unprecedented summer slowdown, as the coronavirus crisis has largely halted travel. Hotel bookings have slowed so much in Alabama alone that the state could lose $105.2 million in state and local hotel tax revenue, per AL.com. Here's how the Gulf region's tourism industry recovered from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. SEE ALSO: AMERICAN RESILIENCE: A look at how New Orleans' world-famous dining scene recovered after Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history DON'T MISS: AMERICAN RESILIENCE: How Puerto Rico rebuilt its tourism industry after Hurricane Maria, from revitalizing its hotel scene to bringing hit musical 'Hamilton' to the island Florida, Alabama, Lousiana, and Texas all have thriving resort towns along the Gulf of Mexico. The beaches became popular road trip destinations in the 1980s because of their bright white sand and wide array of attractions.
Source: The Washington Post, City of Gulf Shores On April 20, 2010, BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore rig exploded, killing 11 and injuring 16. The rig pumped 3.3 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the next five months.
Source: Britannica The rig was located about 41 miles off the coast of Lousiana and spewed crude oil over 57,500 square miles of The Gulf, including approximately 1,100 miles of Lousiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida shoreline.
Source: Britannica President Obama called the spill "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," in a speech from the Rose Garden in June, and pledged to hold BP accountable for the damage to the environment and the local fishing and tourism industries.
Source: Reuters In the worst-hit areas, once snow-white beaches were covered with globs of tar and reeked of oil. The economic fallout spread far beyond the 1,100 miles that were damaged.
Source: The Trust for Public Land News of the spill and viral images of dead sea animals scared away visitors. Even beaches that were still in relatively good shape saw their tourism revenue decline.
Source: The Washington Post Once-packed beaches like the one pictured below in Biloxi, Mississippi, were empty for much of the summer of 2010.
Source: The Washington Post Hospitality and foodservice business leaders blamed press coverage of the spill featuring images like this one, of children walking on a beach dotted with tar, for keeping families away.
Source: The Pensacola News Journal Others, like this one in Grand Isle, Louisiana, were closed for months as oil washed up on the beach.
Source: UPI During the closures, thousands of workers hired by BP embarked on a massive cleanup effort to help restore the beaches to their previous condition. Scientists estimate that about 20% of the spilled oil is still on the ocean floor.
Source: Britannica By August, much of the affected coastline was ready to reopen. Then-President Obama and his family spent a weekend Panama City Beach, Florida, to show people the area was safe to visit.
Source: Reuters The spill caused $693.2 million in losses to the affected area's recreational economies over the next two years, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates.
Source: NOAA Nearly a third of people who had planned trips to visit Lousiana alone postponed or canceled their trips after the spill, per the Lousiana Office of Tourism.
Source: Lousiana Office of Tourism Some economists credit the $230 million BP spent on grants for business owners and three years of aggressive advertising encouraging Americans to visit the Gulf region immediately following the spill for the area's travel boom over the last decade.
Source: The Washington Post, Britannica It was a small portion of the $89.5 billion BP paid to Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to help jumpstart tourism after the spill. Source: NBC News, CBS News The campaign lasted for years and was comprised of full-page newspaper ads and nationally run commercials showing BP executives walking along pristine beaches, happy fisherman, and even celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and John Besh cooking local seafood.
Source: NBC News, CBS News A decade after the spill, tourism along the Gulf was at an all-time high before the coronavirus pandemic. The year before the spill, tourism spending was $1.3 billion in Alabama's Gulf Coast region, The Houston Chronicle reported. By 2018, it had quadrupled to $6.2 billion.
Source: The Houston Chronicle One Alabama condominium developer told The Washington Post in 2015 that his business was up 30% from before the spill. "I've traveled as recently as the spring to California, and there were people there who were saying, 'Hey, I saw those commercials about Alabama,' " Bill Brett told The Post.
Source: The Washington Post While hotels and resorts were able to recover, many small businesses that relied on tourists like restaurants, gift shops, and the charter boat and watercraft rental companies didn't. For them, one summer with no visitors was too much.
Source: Florida State University The Gulf's beach towns are now facing another threat — the coronavirus crisis. After being closed for months, many tourism business have reopened and been overwhelmed by "pent-up demand" despite spiking infection rates throughout the south. Tweet Embed: //twitter.com/mims/statuses/1275495436569190406?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw So, uh, yeah, Gulf Shores Al beaches are crowded on a Tuesday. @michaelwhitewx @spann @ThomasGeboyWX @wxnewsdesk @ClaytonEBarnett @BrettPohlman @AbsolutelyAla pic.twitter.com/iBdPfCKdoJ Source: Slate, Business Insider Now Gulf residents are using their 2010 recovery as a playbook for how to jumpstart their economy once again. "At this stage of the game there is not a lot of difference in the two disasters, because there is so much unknown about the virus," Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism's Herb Malone told The Chronicle.
Source: The Houston Chronicle
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