Gulf Shore a Tough Sell for Tourists

BY Tom Bearden  July 2, 2010 at 2:52 PM EDT

Each night conga lines of beach cleaning machines are towed slowly over the sand from Orange Beach to Gulf Shores, Ala. Rotating steel screens separate out the tar balls and larger clumps of congealed crude oil that wash ashore during the day from the blown out BP oil well.

They wait until nightfall for two reasons. After the sun goes down, the temperature of the sand drops and the liquid oil congeals a little, making it easier to pick up. The other reason is they don’t want to disturb the tourists.

Not that there are as many people on the beach as there usually are on a Fourth of July weekend. Singer Jimmy Buffet, who has a lot of ties to the Alabama Coast, had planned to stage a concert on the beach, but postponed it because of expected bad weather from Hurricane Alex farther out in the Gulf. A lot of people had been counting on the 40,000 people expected to attend to salvage the weekend.

Summer is pretty much everything to the coastal business community. It’s like the Christmas season elsewhere in the country. Businesses make the bulk of their entire annual profits from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and that income tides them over until the next high season. But even though not all the beaches have been fouled and swimming in the Gulf is actually safe some of the time, tourists have stopped coming.

As Chaz Baker told me, “If you are Mr. and Mrs. Hochinger and sitting in Pigs Knuckle, Ark., and debating on putting the two kids in the back seat and driving eight hours to the beach, if you know it might be covered in oil, would you take the gamble?” Baker says the answer is apparently “no,” because his business is down 80 percent. He makes his living renting lounge chairs and umbrellas.

Eddie Spence owns nearly a dozen restaurants along the coast. He says his business is off by half. He says hasn’t laid off any of his 400 employees, but has been forced to shift them around and cut their hours. What really worries him is that “a lot of people are talking about moving away. What is our town going to look like a month from now, a year from now? We all have to make livings whether we live in North Carolina or up north or wherever we have to move to.”

Mayor Robert Craft says the only way local businesses will survive the summer is through the compensation checks that have started to flow from the BP claims center. Some people have complained that the process takes too long, but others say the oil company is keeping its promise to cover at least some of their losses.

On Friday’s NewsHour broadcast, Tom Bearden reports more about the oil leak-related difficulties faced by small businesses along the Gulf Coast. Be sure to tune in.