Gulf Coast Sees Record Tourism Rebound After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Along the beaches of the Gulf Coast, 2011 ends with a surprise that no one expected this soon: a post-oil spill rebound in tourism, and record-setting at that.

The year of 2010, of course, goes down as the horrible, lost period thanks to BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest oil spill in this nation’s history. This year wraps up with not only better tourism numbers than before the oil spill, but better than any year on record. Florida’s oil-impacted beaches in the Panhandle saw tourism shoot up 61 percent over 2010. Alabama rose 51 percent, while Mississippi gained 7 percent.

Louisiana doesn’t have exact numbers yet, but tourism officials in Baton Rouge say they are at numbers that the state did not expect to see until the end of 2012. And tourism promoters and business owners set all-time records --  not just over 2010’s horrible summer -- after they seriously wondered last year whether all they had ever invested  in would be lost and shut down.

"At that point in time, we didn't think it was gonna come back, that's why all of us are shocked that it has come back like it has,” Billy Martin said. “Yes, on a scale we never could have imagined."

Martin’s Pensacola Beach restaurant was appropriately named last year. After the oil spill, the staff at Flounder’s had to work hard to convince tourists that the Gulf shrimp, yellowtail and mahi mahi was—as scientific tests repeatedly concluded—safe to eat. This year they have had no arguments -- just seafood-loving tourists spending dollars.

“It was the most spectacular thing we've ever seen that you've had that kind of down year and then to have the best year ever with people coming from all over the southeast to visit Pensacola beach,” says Buck Lee, Santa Rosa Island Authority Director.

And west of Pensacola, past the Floribama bar, which straddles the state border, sits Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Ala. There, according to tourism director Herb Malone, 2011 also was not only substantially better than 2010, but better than it’s best year ever.

And somewhat ironically, 2010’s big culprit turns out to be the one getting a lot of the credit for 2011’s rebound.

After the Macondo Well blowout killed 11 workers, injured 17 and plumed nearly 5 million barrels of goopy, brown oil into the Gulf, BP dedicated $20 billion to cleaning up the beaches, removing all traces of the spill. The oil giant also spent about $200 million for the states to promote tourism and extra funds for national TV commercials touting the rebound.

For tourism-dependent business owners like Martin, this holiday week provides many reasons for things to toast to on New Year's Eve. His decades of investment in four restaurants did not flush down the drain, but instead, are bustling and positioned for an even better year in 2012.