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Florida tourism feels pain from oil spill threat

MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida’s $60 billion-a-year tourism industry is already losing millions of dollars as a result of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, even though no confirmed oil contamination from it has yet hit the state’s beaches, a top tourism marketing official said on Tuesday.

“Even without touching the ground, it’s causing significant economic hardship in the state already,” Will Seccombe, chief marketing officer of the state tourism marketing board, VISIT FLORIDA, told Reuters, estimating this at millions of dollars of lost visitor-related business.

Facing a potentially disastrous environmental and economic blow from the spreading slick, local tourism authorities are hoping a “100 percent transparent” information campaign will keep visitors still flocking to the famous Sunshine State.

But the discovery of tar balls on Monday on the beaches of Key West -- the island holiday resort where writer Ernest Hemingway fished and partied -- has raised alarm about the possibility of currents dragging the oil to Florida shores.

Scientists are testing the Key West tar blobs to confirm if they really do come from the same ruptured undersea well owned by BP Plc which has already spewed oil onto outlying islands and marshes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The Coast Guard on Tuesday checked out reports of more tar balls on beaches in the Florida Keys.

Of all the threatened states, Florida has the most to lose. Tourism is its economic lifeblood, 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 Floridians.

“Just the threat of something bad puts a ding into that, let alone an environmental disaster like the spill,” Seccombe said.

In an interview, Seccombe stressed that to date there had been “absolutely zero environmental impact” from the spill in Florida, but it had already taken an economic toll.

Seccombe said while visitors in the first quarter through March were up, and there had not yet been an avalanche of cancellations, he saw tourists hesitating about whether to make the trip amid the welter of alarming news about the oil slick.

“The phones aren’t ringing as we would expect them to on any given day,” he said.

“My estimation is ... that there are a lot of people ... not choosing Florida right now, based on what could possibly happen,” Seccombe said.

He added that Florida wanted to get the message out that even if some oil did affect part of state’s shore, there would still be lots more of the nearly 1,200 miles of coast that would remain unsullied and could be safely visited.

“The only way we’ll be able to counter the negative imagery and the negative news is by being 100 percent transparent and showing ... what is still beautiful and available and open for business,” Seccombe said.

The Florida tourism marketing board was using web sites and Twitter to keep visitors updated -- and keep them coming.

COULD BE WORSE THAN RECESSION, HURRICANE?

Many experts believe crude from the Gulf of Mexico spill may have 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, to Miami.

Some say part of the oil slick may reach the Florida Keys in five to six days, and possibly Miami five days after that.

Moody’s Investors Service said that since Florida lacks an income tax and is heavily reliant on sales tax revenues, especially derived from tourism, any fall-off in tourist activity could badly squeeze a state economy still bleeding from a housing market meltdown and the global recession.

“The state’s high dependence on tourism dollars and jobs is significant and a gradually worsening disaster associated with any part of Florida’s 1,197 coastline miles could likely have long-term implications even greater than the recent global recession or Hurricane Ivan in 2004,” it said in a note.

Seccombe said that, not being a scientist, he could not comment on the theories on how soon the oil could reach Florida, or how much might come ashore.

“My expectation is, if there is an impact, it would be on a very localized level and not a statewide incident,” he said.

“From Pensacola to Key West, that’s a long way and there’s a ton of beaches and incredible tourism destinations in between the two,” he added.

But he had no illusions about the economic damage a fall-off in tourism could cause. “Every 85 visitors supports one Florida job. You start losing visitors, you lose jobs, you lose sales tax collections,” he said.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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