Gulf Shores Battered By Image
After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: There’s no oil on the shore, but Alabama beach town still battered by image problem
By Mike Kelly
GULF SHORES, Ala. — It was a warm October afternoon, and there were a few dozen people on the beach. Some were reclining in beach chairs, while others were strolling along the shore. A few were building lumpy-looking castles in the snowy-white sand, and a number of them were wading knee-deep in the warm, bluish-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
And there wasn’t an oil slick or a tar ball in sight.
That last bit of information might come as a mild surprise to many Northerners, who have seen six months of news reports on the Gulf Coast and its “oil-drenched” beaches after a BP deep-water oil rig exploded in late April, sending hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite containment efforts by BP and the government, some of that oil eventually made its way to shore in the states bordering the Gulf, much of it in the form of gooey oil slicks and sticky tar balls.
In addition to the environmental disaster created by the blowout, its economic impact on the coast has been devastating, especially in vacation communities like this one, where tourism is everything. Last year, the neighboring Alabama coastal towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach had 4.6 million visitors, who spent $2.3 billion and helped support some 40,000 travel-related jobs.
All of those numbers will be drastically lower in 2010.
Compounding the area’s woes is a problem that’s been no less sticky than the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and that’s the continued misconception that things have been much worse on Alabama beaches than they actually were.
“Our biggest challenge has not been the oil but the perceptions and the incorrect information that was out there,” said Kim Chapman, public relations manager for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. “Some media reports said the entire Gulf Coast was impacted. By May, we had scattered tar balls on our beaches, not the oily globs that were seen in Louisiana and other states. I have news articles where I or my boss was quoted, and they’d run a picture of the Louisiana coastline.”
By June, larger concentrations of oil were indeed washing ashore here, and while cleanup efforts locally shifted into high gear, potential visitors were kept abreast of the situation via daily updates and real-time videos on tourism Web sites.
“We didn’t want people coming here and being surprised that there was an oil spill,” Ms. Chapman said. “We wanted to be very upfront and be an honest resource for them.”
By late summer, most traces of the spill had been removed from local beaches, but at that point, thousands of tourist cancellations had already taken their toll, with hotel and condo rental bookings down by more than half. To help salvage the season, local communities used grant money provided by BP to stage a series of free beachfront “Concerts for the Coast” featuring big-name entertainers.
The all-star lineup included Jimmy Buffet, who has roots in the area — his younger sister Lucy runs a big open-air restaurant here called Lulu’s — as well as rocker Bon Jovi and country singer Brad Paisley. Together, the free concerts drew more than 100,000 people, and helped fill the area’s condos, hotels and restaurants.
Local leaders are hoping some of the summer’s lost business will show up later in the year, and they may be right. Walking the beach in October, I ran into Gabe Lester and his wife, who were down from Kentucky. “We were supposed to come in June,” he said, “but we rescheduled for now, and this is great. It’s less crowded.”
Besides the beach, my wife and I found plenty to see and do in the area. Among the highlights:
• The 7,000-acre Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/bonsecour) sits on a peninsula directly in the flyway of millions of spring and fall migratory birds, and along its many hiking trails, visitors are likely to see everything from ospreys and herons to sea turtles and armadillos.
• The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo (www.alabamagulfcoastzoo.org; 1-251-968-5732) has a reputation out of all proportion to its size, thanks to its starring role in Animal Planet’s prime-time TV series, “The Little Zoo That Could.” At the hands-on zoo, visitors can play with kangaroos, monkeys, lemurs and more. And trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a frisky 25-pound white tiger cub gnaw on your leg.
• Several local charter boats offer the chance to get an up-close look at marine life. On a Cetacean Cruises dolphin cruise (www.cetaceancruises.com; 1-251-550-8000), we watched more than a dozen of the playful mammals popping in and out of Wolf Bay, and during a nature tour with Sailaway Charters (http://Sailorskip.com; (1-251- 974-5055), Capt. Skip cast a small net overboard, then showed off a wriggling catch that included sting rays, squid, crabs, catfish, tonguefish and shrimp.
• Not far from the beaches is the genteel little river town of Magnolia Springs, once home to authors Fannie Flagg (“Fried Green Tomatoes”) and Winston Groom (“Forrest Gump”), and one of the only places in America where the mail is delivered by boat year-round. Strolling down a quiet street beneath a canopy of oak trees, you’ll think you’re in Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, except this place is real.
As Gulf Shores heads into the winter season, hotels and condos are offering steeply discounted rates, with some tossing in free nights as well. And the only signs of oil you’re likely to spot are in some of the local bars, which still serve an “Oil Slick Cocktail.” One barmaid described it as “kind of like a Long Island Iced Tea, but with Blue Curacao and a little Coke floating on top.”
She paused, then added, “It’s disgusting.”