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PANHANDLE TOURISTS WEIGH RESERVATIONS (ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION)

May 7, 2010

A sunset wedding on a sugar white Panhandle beach, rimmed with emerald water, is the vision an Atlanta-area bride-to-be hopes will come true.

“That’s been our dream since we first visited there five years ago, to get married on the beach in Destin,” Lauren Williams, 22, said this week of her scheduled May 28 marriage to Steven Bryant, 24, on a beach some fear by then could be smeared in oil from a huge spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I worried about that, of course, every time I watch the news,” said Williams. “But the wedding organizers said if the oil lands, we’ll move the ceremony to the bay side.”

Williams, who lives in Temple, a western suburb of Atlanta, is more hopeful -- or maybe more invested -- than many Atlantans who regard the Florida Panhandle as the city's unofficial Atlanta Beach (an estimated 5 million annual tourist visits to the Panhandle originate from Atlanta, according to Panhandle tourism officials).

Those devotees of the littoral a five-and-a-half-hour drive south have watched from afar with growing horror as oil gushing from a well in the Gulf threatens to turn the white beaches they visit every summer into an unsavory brown oil slick.

Atlantan Shea Zimmerman, who loves the Panhandle beaches of St. George Island, said she’ll decide this weekend whether to book a beach house for a family vacation. It’s where they’ve gone every summer for the past decade. Panhandle tourism officials say the beaches are still pristine, and the oil may never arrive there.

“I have to decide whether to pay the $2,000 deposit, and that’s a big bet,” said Zimmerman, who, as president of the Atlanta Board of Realtors, sympathizes with the property owner. “... I might just flip a coin.”
Operators from Orange Beach in Alabama to St. George Island are holding out hope that the leaking well in the Gulf below New Orleans will be plugged. If that happens, the crisis will pass, sparing them and averting an economic catastrophe.

Most say it’s hard to estimate what the damage might be.
Bob Robicheaux, a professor of marketing and economics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, gave an idea this week of what would happen if the oil finds land.

At the very least, he said, the blow to the $20 billion tourism business on the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to the Panhandle will be “at least $750 million.”

How bad it is depends on whom you talk to. Early in the week -- when some were predicting the oil would reach Panhandle beaches by Thursday -- there were news reports that phones were “ringing off the hook” with cancellations at hotels and property rental management companies.

Robert Cunningham is a partner in the Mobile law firm Cunningham Bounds, which is representing a group of Panhandle businesses suing for anticipated damages from the spill. He said his firm represents “condominium owners all the way through Florida, and I can tell you that there has been a tremendous amount of cancellations.”

But the same day, Fred Simmons, a property and motel owner, real estate sales man and bar operator on Pensacola Beach, said his reservations are holding up. "We've had very few cancellations." What's troubling, he said, is the reservations line has practically gone dead.

In Destin, Jerry Turner, the owner of Atlanta-based Advanced Bio-Treatment, said his family from Dawsonville canceled a 10-day visit and fishing trip to Destin next weekend because of the oil and are instead headed to the Atlantic coast to fish and relax.

It's hard to say how many have made a similar decision. Steve Milo, president and CEO of Vacation Rental Pros Property Management in Jacksonville, said reservations at more than 200 properties he manages in St. Augustine, on Florida's Atlantic coast, are up 300 percent this year over last "and it started when the oil rig sank."

Bill Lawson, a broker with Harry Norman Realtors who does business in the Panhandle, said the individual condominium owners he knows on the Panhandle aren't getting cancellations, but they aren't getting new reservations, either. "Usually, by the middle of May, they have the summer booked up," he said.

To encourage renters, some properties have relaxed their minimum notice of cancellations from 60 to 30 days. Others have eliminated them. In the meantime, they remind people the oil hasn't hit, may not, and the beaches are as beautiful as ever.

“We have an arts festival this weekend, and it’s getting as many visitors as it always does,” said Laurie Hobbs, director of public relations and marketing communications for Seaside and Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. As for cancellations, "we’ve had less than a handful Saturday and Sunday. We’re even seeing people re-booking."

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