Published July 17, 2010
One door closes, another door opens.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico tainted the city's emerald waters and sandy beaches with a slick, shiny coating of muddy goo. Tourism plummeted, sending the coastal community into a frenzy.
But some businesses are seeing unexpected growth, despite the spill.
The smell of coconut oil and fresh sunscreen has faded along the shore, but just a few blocks away the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo has had twice the number of visitors it had last year.
“Yes, we have seen an increase in attendance,” said the zoo's director, Patti Hall. “My numbers are up from last year. This is good, because 480 mouths need to be fed -- plus a staff.”
She said the zoo, whose attractions include wolves, tigers and kangaroos, “relies solely on admissions, memberships and contributions to remain in business.”
“We just hope it stays this way, because right now we are just smiling,” Hall said.
Throughout the Gulf Coast businesses are coming together with their local Tourism Development Boards and doing the best they can to stay afloat. Quite a few businesses have been successful.
From day one, nearly three months ago, the oil spill has been a nightmare. But, for the Santa Rosa County of Milton, Fla., it has opened up new doors of opportunity in spite of tar balls washing up ashore Navarre Beach.
The Shoreline Users Resource Force (S.U.R.F.) program in Navarre beach is the new tourist magnet. Visitors from states like Tennessee, Massachusetts, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, just to name a few, have been coming to Milton to learn about the ecological and economical impact the Gulf oil spill has had in Santa Rosa County.
“Tourists are so appreciative to get information and their questions answered,” said Chris Verlinde, the brains behind S.U.R.F. and an agent for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences'Florida Sea Grant Extension program.
“This program is very community oriented. We have gotten a great response from the tourists who think it is very cool.”
S.U.R.F. is modeled after a similar program created by the National Park Service. According to Verlinde, people are trained to “provide accurate, fact-based information to locals and visitors on Navarre Beach,” to give “knowledge of coastal systems, habitats and wildlife, water safety, clean-up response, and seafood safety” and to “promote a consistent message of the current conditions of the beach and what makes Navarre Beach special.”
“I trained 31 folks this past Thursday and Friday,” Verlinde said. “I had one volunteer who went out right after training and was received well by beachgoers, BP workers, the Florida Fish and Wild Life Conservation Commission workers, and the sheriffs. She said it was the best two hours of her life.”
Dyna and John Kohler of Atlanta, Ga., were looking for a way to help the Pensacola area when they came across the S.U.R.F. website.
“We are both retired and really wanted to help, but without taking the jobs from BP workers,” said Dyna Kohler, whose husband grew up in the area. She said she feels very strongly about the S.U.R.F. program because it has enlightened her about the sea turtles on Navarre Beach.
“I would have never known there are that many turtles nesting here," Kohler said. A lot of people were happy to learn about the sea turtles. In this training I learned a lot of things about BP, and the impact that it has had in general, but specifically in places such as Louisiana. I am sorry to learn how the species have been affected.”
She said she and her husband plan to eat in the local restaurants and spend more time on the beach on their own, activities they hope will provide a small economic boost for the community.
Verlinde mentions that S.U.R.F. has attracted “a very different clientele than usual,” such as Bill Carroll, a Columbus, Ohio, resident who e-mailed Verlinde recently to say he has been taking summer trips to the area for the past 10 years and wanted to help out during his vacation.
“I think educating ourselves is probably the most important thing we can do in this situation,” said the 47-year-old firefighter. “I’m very comfortable spending my vacation dollars in this area. I like this place, it is not a tourist trap by any means and you can be as laid back as you want to be.”
Another business that is prospering is Adventures Unlimited, a recreation facility near Navarre Beach that offers canoeing, kayaking, camping, tubing, cabins, a rope course, secluded white sandbars and lodging through the Blackwater River State Forest.
“These four weekends have been the busiest all year,” said Jack Sanborn the company's owner.
Blackwater Forest, too, is seeing so many visitors that the park is pushing to hire another employee, said Amy Graham, who works for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in conjunction with the Florida Emergency Operations Center.
“The park has been filled to capacity on many days, which is not the norm,” Graham said.
Sanborn’s new zipline course has worked like a charm with tourists.
“So many people have ties to the beach,” he said. “Many have been affected, both economically and emotionally. For some people here, going to the beach is a soul-changing experience. You can have that same experience by going to the forest and being in the outdoors.”
Sustainability and better marketing techniques are among the issues discussed in the countless meetings that Sanborn and other business owners in the community have been detailing with the Santa Rosa County Tourism Development Council.
“We are emphasizing our creeks and trails, hiking, ziplining, canoeing and kayaking,” said Kate Wilkes, executive director of the Santa Rosa Tourism Council. “It sure has helped with the tourists. We have had more inquiries in the visitor center lately.”
BP’s well gushed an unimaginable amount of oil into the Gulf throughout the Fourth of July weekend, but Adventures Unlimited ran out of kayaks and inner tubes for their visitors.
"The website traffic is up 35 percent,” Sanborn said. “I’m about to run out of canoes and cabins as well. They are very popular.”