Opportunities Open in Gulf Travel

GULF COAST, U.S. (TheStreet) -- As BP (BP) and Transocean (RIG) attempt to cap and clean the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the miles-wide slick has already cast a pall over Gulf Coast vacation plans.

The good news as of this week is that all Florida beaches -- including Fort Walton, Destin, Okaloosa, Panama City and Pensacola -- are open and a swimming advisory has been lifted for beaches from the Florida-Alabama border to the entrance of the Perdido section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Alabama. Sections of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi and Florida remain open, but beaches in Grand Isle, Louisiana, remain closed.

Meanwhile, local authorities have warned against swimming or fishing off Eastern Dauphin Island, Fort Morgan, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Old River and Terry Cove in Alabama and Bayou St. John and Cotton Bayou in Louisiana. Despite these warnings, travel experts are advising vacationers to be meticulous about their research before heading down to the Gulf.

"They need to be a little bit careful because a lot of the tourism boards are going to be promotion-heavy and say the beaches are clear when we've seen evidence of tar balls on the beach," says Anne Banas, editor of travel site SmarterTravel. "It's really up the consumer to do their own research, but there's a lot more you can do at these destinations than going to the beach and they need the help."

Because the spill just happens to be occurring during hurricane season, travel sites like Orbitz ( OWW) note that most of the affected areas don't typically fall within their top travel destinations around this time of year. Many are considered "drive-time" locations mostly frequented by locals who typically access them by car.

However, the drop in business at many Gulf vacation spots has been severe enough to prompt Expedia ( EXPE) and Hotels.com to donate 8% of hotel bookings to the Greater New Orleans Foundation, which is helping with cleanup and recovery. Expedia's affiliate TripAdvisor, meanwhile, is giving its partner hotels and bed-and-breakfast locations in the Gulf three months' worth of free listings to help minimize losses that are already adding up.

"We've seen a drop in bookings for hotels on the Gulf," says Brian Hoyt, a spokesman for Orbitz. "There is about a 10% to 15% reduction in rental rates."

It's a drop-off that both hoteliers and travel sites are trying to alleviate. Under Orbitz's "Open Beach Guarantee," for example, travelers who book a room at a participating hotel between June 14 and July 31 will be eligible for a full refund on any unused hotel nights if a government agency closes a beach within 20 miles of the property or declares it dangerous.

Vacation-home owners, however, don't have nearly as many contingencies. Escapia, the Seattle-based company that oversees vacation-property-management site Escapia.com and rental site Clear Stay, estimates that vacation renters in the affected areas do roughly 61% of their business from May through August. Though vacation rentals in the region increased 20% over the first quarter, Escapia found that rentals dropped 42% in the month after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank.

"What's interesting in terms of the emotional response from vacation-rental companies down there and from the data is how closely tied it is to the news cycle and its pace," says Bill Furlong, Escapia's chief executive. "There was a frustration that the news coverage made it feel like the beaches were covered with oil when they weren't, and now there's severe concern about a very real situation that affects the pace of cancellations in real time."

Meanwhile, vacation-rental site HomeAway has seen a redistribution of inquiries and demand in non-Gulf regions since the spill began. For instance, inquiries for properties on the Florida Central Atlantic Coast on HomeAway.com increased 25% after the oil spill, while inquiries in Northeast Florida grew from minus 14% before the spill compared to 2009 to 26% after afterward. Coastal Georgia, meanwhile, saw inquiries rise from 33% to 42% after the spill.

For property managers in Alabama, it's about emphasizing mountains, rivers and beaches beyond the spill's reach. Vacation-home owners in affected areas, however, are getting some help from agencies like Escapia, which is helping compile data including average seasonal visits and cancellation rates for owners looking to file claims with BP. HomeAway is offering similar assistance.

"As a vacation-rental owner in the Gulf herself, Christine Karpinski, director of the owner community for HomeAway, is providing tips and updates for owners on the HomeAway owner community page," says Alexis de Belloy, vice president of HomeAway. "She recommends that owners keep a detailed record of any business losses resulting from the oil spill and consider a 'clean beach guarantee' that includes a full refund if the beach closes before they arrive."

Travelers, meanwhile, are urged not to abandon their summer sanctuaries and help businesses within those communities that don't require a trip to the beach. For those still seeking a summer by the shore despite the slick, travel experts and tourist boards recommend pitching in by helping groups like the Alabama Coastal Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, Save Our Seabirds and others taking part in the cleanup.

"Volunteering is much needed and could be a great experience for people who want to help with the cleanup," SmarterTravel's Banas says. "That's something you can do that's not only supporting the area, but having a direct impact on the damage to the coastline."

-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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