Avoiding the Oil

Robert and Claire Schults of Atlanta decided to come to Isle of Palms for their vacation instead of to Sea Grove, Fla., after the possibility of oily beaches in the Gulf of Mexico made them change their minds.

The massive sea of oil threatening the Gulf Coast may send a wave of vacationers to Charleston and other Southeast Atlantic resort areas.

Some Charleston resorts and beach vacation rental companies said they already see an uptick in inquiries and some bookings from people who had planned to go to the Gulf but want to avoid the oil spill.

That includes Claire and Robert Schults. The Atlanta couple had booked a stay at Sea Grove near Destin on the Florida Panhandle, but last week, as oil continued gushing from last month's oil platform explosion, the couple decided to give up their $600 deposit and rent a place on the Isle of Palms.

"All the uncertainty of the oil spill" made them decide not to risk wrecking their vacation, Robert Schults said Thursday while enjoying the warm breeze outside the oceanfront condo the two rented near the Windjammer bar and nightclub. "Charleston is awesome."

Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said her organization's website has seen a 15 percent increase in "unique" visitors from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana since the oil spill.

She called the Gulf Coast one of Charleston's main competitors in capturing summer travelers. More inquiries also have come in from Ohio, a key market for Gulf Coast destinations.

Beach vacation areas along the Southeast coast have reported similar increases in interest from Gulf Coast vacationers. In Savannah, for example, The Savannah Morning News reports that the vacation industry on Tybee Island is expecting increased business as a result of the oil spill.

Whether this ripple of nervous inquiries turns into a wave of bookings for the Southeast Atlantic beach vacation industry depends on if the leak can be stopped, whether the oil hits land, and if it does, where it washes ashore.

Calls to local beaches

Joey Froneberger, a vacation planner with Island Realty on the Isle of Palms, which manages more than 400 rentals, estimated that his office has taken more than 100 inquiries and a number of bookings from concerned Gulf Coast vacationers.

He said he's handled 20 calls himself. "We practically can't return all the calls."

At The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island, Jessica Vonnahme, manager of reservations, said the high-end resort has received a couple of summer bookings and 15 to 20 calls from people inquiring about changing plans from the Gulf.

A couple of those inquiries came from people who had planned to stay at exclusive resorts on Florida's southwest Gulf Coast, including people who had planned to vacation at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, several hundred miles from the spill.

The phones have been quieter on Folly Beach. Kathryn Hartle, director of sales and marketing at the Holiday Inn, said the only inquiries were from people who had planned special events along the Gulf and were looking for alternatives.

LaJuan Kennedy, broker-in-charge at Fred Holland Realty, which has some 300 rentals on Folly, said just one worried Gulf vacationer has called. She hopes the Gulf Coast vacation industry can avoid an economic disaster, but said, if Gulf vacationers change their plans, "we'd be happy to have them as guests."

Fear on the Gulf

In Florida, tourist industry and government officials worry that the mere existence of the massive spill, even if it doesn't touch land, will undercut the state's $65-billion-a-year tourist business.

And, they said, if it comes ashore along the coast from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, the odds are even greater that it will damage beach tourism across the rest of the Florida, even though the slick is hundreds of miles from most of those beaches.

D.T. Minich, tourism director for Pinellas County on Florida's west coast, told the St. Petersburg Times, "Now the news media in Europe has it as an environmental story, but the minute some of this oil makes landfall, it will become a tourism story about the beaches."

Marion Edmonds, communications director for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said the state doesn't expect much of an increase in tourism here as a result of the spill, so long as it doesn't get much worse.

"It is still a little early to tell. ... We hope for their sake it is short-term."