* Increase of 3.4 pct, biggest rise in overseas visitors
* Officials fear “misperceptions” linger over spill impact
* Tourism a mainstay for state economy, tax revenues
By Pascal Fletcher
MIAMI, Aug 24 (Reuters) - The number of visitors to Florida from April through June increased, despite the BP (BP.L) (BP.N) Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but the rise in tourists would have been much bigger without the disaster, a state tourism official said on Tuesday.
Although the world’s worst offshore oil spill inflicted less damage on Florida than on other Gulf states like Alabama and Louisiana, the arrival of tar balls and oil debris on the Florida Panhandle still put a dent in the Sunshine State’s $60 billion-a-year tourism industry, according to authorities.
Nevertheless, visitors to the state increased by 3.4 percent in the second quarter of the year, compared with the same period last year, when Florida, like the rest of the United States, was feeling the impact of the global economic downturn.
“There’s good news that the numbers are up, but there’s bad news in that it probably would have been up significantly more in the absence of that oil spill,” Will Seccombe, chief marketing officer of the state tourism marketing board VISIT FLORIDA told Reuters in a phone interview.
Tourism is Florida’s economic lifeblood and largest industry with more than 80 million visitors a year bringing in 21 percent of all state sales taxes and employing nearly 1 million Floridians.
Of the total rise in visitors to Florida from April through June, the increase in domestic travelers, at 2.4 percent, was smaller than the increase in both overseas and Canadian travelers to Florida, at 11.9 percent and 10.4 percent respectively, Seccombe said.
He said there was currently no oil on Florida beaches following the massive environmental cleanup, the biggest in U.S. history, launched against the oil spilled from BP’s blown-out offshore deepwater Macondo well in the Gulf.
“One hundred percent of (Florida) beaches are open for business. They are clear and clean,” he said, although he added there may be some sporadic sightings of tar balls.
BP engineers provisionally capped the leak on July 15, shutting off the crude flow into the Gulf, and they are working to permanently “kill” the well through a relief well that should reach the crippled borehole shortly after Sept. 6.
Seccombe said that while he was encouraged that “more people are spending their hard-earned money and their precious vacation time in the Sunshine State, I‘m concerned that we may be losing market share as a result of the misperceptions that continue to linger due to the oil spill.”
He said Florida had been outpacing the rest of the United States in terms of total tourist rooms sold through May.
But after May, as the real and perceived effects of the oil spill forced many prospective visitors to cancel their trips, the state trailed the rest of the country in rooms sold.
“We are absolutely still battling misperceptions regarding the spill,” Seccombe said, adding surveys showed some people still believed there was oil on Florida beaches, even on the state’s East Coast, which was untouched by the spill.
Florida received a total of $32 million from BP to fund an advertising campaign to mitigate the impact on tourism from the spill. Seccombe said he believed this helped to keep visitors coming to the state.
Since Florida lacks an income tax and is heavily reliant on sales tax revenues, especially derived from tourism, any fall-off in tourist activity is felt all the more keenly by a state economy still bleeding from a housing market meltdown and the global recession. (Editing by Stacey Joyce)