Many Gulf Coast Parks Still Buffeted by Spill
Three months after the BP oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, some RV park and campground owners say their businesses are beginning to recover while others report summer occupancy rates off as much as 50% as the region continues to combat the perception that oil is washing up on hundreds of miles of beaches.
”We are fortunate; we’ve had very few cancellations,” said Katy Folkertsma, manager of 60-site Pineglen RV Park about three-quarters of a mile off the Gulf in Panama City Beach, Fla. In mid-July, she said, the park was 75% occupied with the third July weekend fully booked.
”People call and ask us and I tell them the beaches are fine,” said Folkertsma. “For every cancellation that I get, I get another person calling for a reservation.”
On the other hand, Judy Hezik, manager Baywood Campground, a 117-site RV resort 1 1/2 miles from the beach in Gulfport, Miss., said the phone hasn’t been ringing like it usually does. ”Business definitely has slowed down a lot — probably 30%,” she said. ”People assume there’s so much oil on our beaches that they don’t even call.”
Hezik said that while the winter season typically is busier than summertime at Baywood, “we usually get a flow of RVers, but that’s not happening right now. We need the negative publicity to stop.”
Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) reports that its 50 company-owned and franchised campgrounds in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and Texas were down 1% through the middle of July compared to 2009. However, over the Independence Day holiday, those same facilities reported a 14% dropoff vs. the holiday weekend a year ago. ”We are complaining like everybody down there that the media hasn’t been very kind,” said Mike Gast, vice president of communications for KOA. ”People just aren’t taking the chance.”
Through June, by the same token, business is down 50% for the season at Perdido RV Resort in Perdido Key, Fla., an island on the Intercoastal Waterway 10 blocks from the Gulf in the Florida Panhandle.
But that began to change in July, according to owner Julian McQueen. ”It seems to be settling down a little bit,” McQueen said. ”We’ve seen our numbers come back a little bit in July. I don’t know why. Maybe people are taking a more reasonable look at this and whether the Gulf and the beaches having oil on them is an impactful as the media is portraying.”
After attending a meeting with Kenneth Feinstein, who is in charge of distributing $20 billion in aid to Gulf Coast residents and businesses from a special, independent fund set up by BP, McQueen said he is confident that campground owners applying for relief will receive compensation. “He made it clear he’s not working for BP or the (Obama) administration, but that he’s working for the Gulf,” McQueen said.
Indeed, Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the Florida and Alabama affiliates of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, said he has heard anecdotally that some campground owners already have begun receiving checks.
”I don’t know the exact numbers, but there are a few parks that have received some responses and some have received payment,” Cornwell said. ”It’s not been enough to cover losses, however.”
Cornwell said occupancy is down 50% at Camping on the Gulf in Destin, Fla., one of the few Florida parks with campsites right on the beach. ”The fact is,” Cornwell said, ”there is no oil on those beaches.”
“The media talks about the beaches as if everything is covered with oil and that’s not the case,” said Camping on the Gulf General Manager Pat O’Neill, who reported in a news release that negative national publicity is costing the park more than $3,000 a day in lost reservations.
The campground is trying to counter that perception with daily videos on its website (www.campgulf.com) that prove that the Gulf waters and its beach are clean.
Government agencies are taking the same tack.
While acknowledging scattered problems with oil along its 32 miles of beaches, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism have set up a special website (www.thebeachfacts.com) with a daily video reporting on beach conditions that is also posted on YouTube.
”The thought behind that was to provide accurate, verified information for our guests to deal with other than the noise from the media,” said Kim Chapman, the agency’s public relations manager.
In Mississippi, with 62 miles of beaches stretching through three counties, the Mississippi Development Authority is using $15 million received directly from BP to buy radio and TV spots aimed at vacationers in the southeastern states. ”We want people to know that our beaches are not covered with tar balls,” said Jennifer Spann, the authority’s public relations manager. The media perception is hurting us. Some parts of our beaches have been closed at times. But most of the beaches are open, and we are still encouraging people to come on down because there is still plenty to do.”
Mark Anderson, owner of 101-site Poche Plantation RV Resort on the banks of the Mississippi River in Convent, La., says the oil spill has hurt business more than he anticipated. ”We don’t have any oil problems, but business is off 30% to 35%,” he said. ”We don’t have any oil in our face, but we have oil in the minds of people coming down this way.
”The question I get a lot is ‘if I can smell the oil?’ I tell them ‘no.’ People think that if they come down here, they are going to get oil on their rigs (RVs).”
Cornwell, for his part, said the owner of Anchors Aweigh in Foley, Ala., reported that business is off by about 50% for the season. ”A lot of their business is from people going deep sea fishing and they are usually full this time of year,” Cornwell said. ” People who live nearby are coming as usual, but most of the campers who are coming from up north are assuming the worst and don’t want to take the chance. The area is having a horrible summer. Local restaurants have closed down and many of the condos are empty.”
In Texas, Gulf Coast campgrounds are reporting that business hasn’t been affected by the oil spill, according to Brian Schaeffer, executive director of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).
He reported that tar balls that showed up on some Texas beaches in mid-July didn’t come directly from the oil spill. ”The Fourth of July was fantastic,” Schaeffer said. ”Texas campgrounds that rely on water tourism are doing great. They seem at this point not to be concerned.”