- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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