* Dauphin Island merchants say cancellations running high
* Slowdown comes as travel season should be heating up
* Day-trippers, curiosity seekers dominate island commerce
By Steve Gorman
DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala., May 10 Long before tar
balls washed up on its sugar-white sandy beaches, the tiny
barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay saw its main source
of commerce -- tourism -- take a beating from oil gushing into
the Gulf of Mexico.
Dauphin Island is steeped in history and known for its
pristine beaches, sport fishing and abundant bird life but
merchants there say vacation traffic to the scenic resort has
slowed to a trickle as an environmental disaster looms off the
The slowdown comes just as the tourist season should be
heating up, catching some business owners, like souvenir
proprietor Lynn Wickman, with full inventories bought on credit
in anticipation of a busy spring and summer.
Instead of families on vacation, the bulk of the island's
commerce now consists of curiosity seekers and locals who
generally spend less time, and less money, in the town.
"It sucks," said Wickman, owner of the Treasure Trove gift
shop that occupies an 18th-century church -- one of Alabama's
oldest buildings -- at the end of a quiet Mother's Day. "We
should have had a very busy day today and we have not."
She estimates her business has dropped by half since news
of the April 20 explosion that destroyed an oil rig under
contract with BP, killing 11 crewmen and unleashing an undersea
gusher that threatens to become the worst U.S. oil spill ever.
Making matters worse, Dauphin Island was just starting to
rebound from Hurricane Katrina, which demolished some 200
homes, said Wickman, a resident of the area for more than 20
Gary Bratt of Chaise N' Rays Rentals, specializing in beach
chairs, umbrellas and motor scooters, said his business was off
by 70 percent. Hand-lettered signs posted in front of his shop
offer potential customers an "Oil Spill Special" discount for
"You've got to do something. Sales are down so bad," he
said. "If you talk to any of the realtors and rental management
companies, they're getting cancellations right and left.
"Every reservation we've had in the last two weeks has been
BIRDS AND TORPEDOES
About 1,300 people live year-round on the narrow 14-mile-
(23-km) long island, which touts itself as "America's Birdiest
Coastal Town" and his home Fort Gaines, site of the U.S. Civil
War naval battle of Mobile Bay where U.S. Admiral David
Farragut is said to have famously declared, "Damn the
torpedoes, full speed ahead!"
On Saturday, globs of tar washed up from the Gulf onto the
main public beach of Dauphin Island's east end, alarming some
beachgoers, stirring media excitement and prompting the
dispatch of a cleanup and assessment team.
Samples of the tar, the first seen in a populated area
since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, were collected for
analysis to determine if they came from the oil spill.
The beach was clean and tar free on Sunday as sunbathers
and swimmers abounded, seemingly undaunted by clusters of
oil-absorbing synthetics, or pom-poms, left along the water's
edge the previous day.
Jason Sullivan, 30, of Mobile said he and his family came
for the day partly out of curiosity about the tar.
"We were just going to come anyway and see what it was all
about," he said. "But there's a lot of people here and it's
clean and a beautiful day."
Regular U.S. Coast Guard patrols of the area since the
spill have found no sign of oil, Petty Officer Joel Huffman
said on Sunday, after one excursion to the island's east end.
But he and other locals said the appearance of the tar
balls on the barrier island beach was unusual and not something
they had seen before in that area.
Wickman blamed intense media coverage of the spill for
contributing to the island's current economic woes.
"I believe it's probably the media's overreaction to what
is a potential disaster," she said. "I've seen this every time
there's been a hurricane in the Gulf."
Bratt said he understood consumers' reluctance to spend
hard-earned dollars and precious vacation time on a Gulf Coast
destination at the moment.
"You wait all year for your vacation -- you don't want to
spend it in what you perceive is going to be a cesspool."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)