Share this article

print logo

Florida officials fear tourism will dry up along with BP funds

Sports towels and fleece blankets. A poker tournament. A $1 million Christmas display. A prom for senior citizens. BP gas card giveaways. A "most deserving mom" contest. And advertising, lots of advertising.

Florida Panhandle officials made the mix of eyebrow-raising purchases with $30 million BP gave them earlier this year to help tourism recover from 2010's disastrous Gulf oil spill.

The money allowed seven area tourism bureaus to try promotions they could never have afforded otherwise, and it has propelled the Panhandle's visitor counts to record numbers this year following a disastrous season right after the spill.

The question now is what happens when the BP money dries up, most likely next April. The grants doubled and tripled the tourism-promotion budgets in these Panhandle counties, and officials worry the boost in visitors may prove fleeting.

BP announced the $30 million tourism grants in April. While the agreement for the $30 million doesn't prevent Florida from pursuing any claims against BP or others, officials there decided a week later not to join other Gulf states in a lawsuit against Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig at the heart of the spill.

BP had already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the four Gulf states in the months after the oil spill -- with few strings attached.

The Associated Press documented earlier this year how some of the $754 million given to local governments had been spent on tasers, SUVs and pickup trucks, rock concerts, an iPad and other items with no direct connection to the oil spill.

In all, BP has given $150 million to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi for tourism promotion since the oil spill, with Florida getting the lion's share -- $62 million.

In the more-recent payout, Florida Panhandle counties have allocated more than $23 million of the $30 million through September, with $13.5 million used on for television, digital, radio and print advertising. The counties have also spent millions on a variety of attention-grabbing gimmicks.

Some wonder whether the most extravagant promotions -- such as Panama City Beach's $1 million Christmas display -- are worth it.

"It wasn't all that busy out here last weekend," Charles Walsingham, a beachside merchant near the display, said a few days after the Christmas lights were turned on and the ice rink opened in early December. "There weren't that many people over there skating, and that is a lot of money to spend."

The seven counties spent $2.5 million on promotions alone.

In Pensacola, the BP money paid for $30,000 worth of sports towels and another $30,000 worth of fleece blankets given out at local sporting events. In neighboring Perdido Key, officials spent $300,000 on American Express gift cards for overnight visitors. They also purchased $12,500 worth of BP gas cards for tourists who present receipts showing they stayed in the area.

Alison Davenport, chairwoman of the Perdido Key Chamber and Visitors Center, said the goal is to get tourists driving to the area next spring. "We had no hesitation in choosing BP gas cards over any others since BP's grant money has made the incentivized travel promotion possible," she said.

There are no comments - be the first to comment