PENSACOLA BEACH, Florida Tar balls washed ashore in northwest Florida on Friday, the first apparent impact there from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that one senator said meant a "huge economic hit" to the tourism-dependent state.
Oil debris came ashore among swimmers and beachgoers on Pensacola Beach, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which advertises "the world's whitest beaches," as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history widened.
Florida, the "Sunshine State" with a $60 billion annual tourism industry, had braced for oil from the 46-day-old spill to arrive. Oil had already hit the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to the west.
Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson told CNN the arrival of the oil signified "a huge economic hit" to local tourism. "There are already cancellations, the restaurants are down a little bit," he said.
Beachgoers on Pensacola Beach, many of them children, picked up rust-colored tar blobs, ranging in size from a button to a table-tennis ball, scattered along the sugar-white sands.
"It's pretty sad because we go here on vacation every summer, and now we won't be able to go anymore. I just can't believe it, because it used to be all just white sand," one visitor, Grace Vondohlen, said.
Buck Lee, director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, said he could not be sure the oil came from the spill leaking from BP Plc's undersea Gulf of Mexico well off Louisiana, "but I'm 90 percent certain that it is."
The oil will be analyzed to confirm the link with the oil spill, the worst in U.S. history.
Of all the states affected so far, Florida has the most to lose. Tourism is its largest industry, generating $60 billion in spending from more than 80 million visitors a year, bringing in 21 percent of all state sales taxes and employing nearly 1 million people.
Investment analysts say that since Florida has no income tax and relies heavily on sales tax revenues, any fall-off in tourism could badly squeeze a state economy still bleeding from a housing market meltdown and the global recession.
Nelson told CNN the economic impact of the spill on Gulf Coast states including Florida was "already billions (of dollars) ... and if it goes all summer and you put that much oil in the Gulf, it's going to be multiple billions of dollars of economic loss and damage."
He added a flotilla of ships, including several Coast Guard cutters, were working 25 to 50 miles off northwest Florida, scooping up portions of oil. "That's the goal, to try to keep it away from the bays and estuaries and the beach."
Near Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, workers scooped up tar balls with shovels along the high-water line and put them into plastic bags. "They're working in an area that's pretty sensitive and has tern nesting areas," National Park Services spokeswoman Katie Lawhon said.
"I think it's horrible," said Anthony Cross, walking along Pensacola Beach with his three daughters, holding a child's fishing net full of tar. "You see shells and jellyfish and trash but I've never seen oil here. It's crazy," he added.
Florida tourism authorities were rolling out an aggressive advertising campaign, partially funded by BP, aimed at stressing that the state's beaches remain open for business, despite the pollution threat.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist has asked BP executives for an additional $50 million to fight the encroaching oil, on top of $25 million already received from the company and spent.
On Friday, Crist asked the British-based company for $100 million more to fund spill response efforts by the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a partnership of 21 universities and other marine science organizations.
Florida tourism officials, promising "100 percent transparency," are using live video and Twitter feeds so visitors can check the situation of beaches before booking.
"We're not going to sit here and say, 'The whole state of Florida is going to be shut down as a result of this,' because that's just not true," said Chris Thompson, who heads the state tourism marketing board.
Many experts believe crude from the Gulf of Mexico spill has already been caught up in the powerful Loop Current curling around the Florida Peninsula, which could take it into the Florida Keys and possibly up the East Coast.
(Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee, Jane Sutton and Pascal Fletcher in Miami; writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney)