PENSACOLA, Fla. -- If you've turned on a TV lately, chances are you've seen ads for the Gulf Coast featuring beaches, seafood and friendly faces. But you might have winced if you noticed the little green logo for BP. It's a reminder that the ads are paid for by the company responsible for one of the biggest oil spills in history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which littered beaches with tar balls and devastated tourism for months.
Some critics have mocked the ads, others call them "greenwashing." But two years after the spill, tourism along the Gulf is booming. Officials can't say how many vacationers might have been lured by the ads, which have run nationally and are called "Voices of the Gulf," but many Gulf Coast destinations had their best year ever in 2011. And with strong reports for early 2012, locals are hoping for another banner year.
I'm one of those visitors who, ironically, might never have considered a vacation here had it not been for the oil spill. Like a lot of New Yorkers, I've been to other parts of Florida – Orlando for theme parks, Fort Lauderdale to visit retired relatives, South Beach for the glam, the Everglades for nature. But until I saw those BP ads, I never thought about visiting Florida's Panhandle. Historically, this strip of coast stretching across state lines into Alabama was a summer destination for Southeasterners and a winter destination for Midwesterners. But the ads persuaded this Yankee to check out an area once known as the Redneck Riviera, a term some consider derisive, but that at one time connoted a workingman's paradise where beach vacations didn't have fancy pricetags.
With my sister, another Yankee who'd never been to the region, I set off on a Gulf Coast road trip. We ate oysters, went birdwatching, visited historic homes, and sunbathed on the soft, sugar-white sand the area is famous for. We didn't love the towering condos that dominate so much of the shorefront, but we found beautiful state parks offering easy access to pristine beaches nearly everywhere. And the locals definitely lived up to their reputation for hospitality and friendliness. For other travelers intrigued by the latest BP ad's invitation to "help make 2012 an even better year for tourism," here are some highlights from our trip.
A word about oysters: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have tested local seafood since the oil spill and declared it safe. But oyster lovers should be aware of a nasty bacteria called vibrio vulnificus. Cooked oysters are safe, but vibrio in raw oysters sickens about 30 people a year, and about half of them die, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI says oysters harvested April-November in the Gulf are vulnerable to vibrio, but it's rarely seen in oysters in winter months or from colder Northern waters. For the record, my sister and I devoured Gulf oysters raw and cooked, thrilled by the taste and price, $6 or $7 a dozen.
My sister continued on to Louisiana and Mississippi, the other states in the tourism ads. I returned to New York, where I told anyone who'd listen that the Gulf's beaches, seafood and hospitality were as good as they looked on TV.