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Why You Should Visit the Gulf Coast

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My recent trip to the Florida panhandle to study the effects of the oil spill for Lonely Planet was as sobering and powerful a trip as I've taken. The dozens of locals I spoke with in seaside towns between Pensacola and Panama City Beach began conversations animated - usually fed-up by what they called 'slow' or inadequate clean-up efforts - and ended in a glum silence, essentially resigned to the likelihood that their world is about to change badly. One Pensacola local, who has already had two homes destroyed by hurricanes, told me facing an oil spill was worse. 'You can rebuild a home in a beautiful place,' he said. 'But you can't rebuild a beautiful place.'

Now that oil has hit some of the same beaches I enjoyed last week, I'm heart-broken, yet feel privileged, by my deeper connection with the people and place affected.

'See it while you can' has become something of an unofficial local mantra on the Gulf, and while there I saw and did all I could. And, to be honest, it was fun too. I took a sunset boat tour where a dozen dolphins splashed in our clear-blue wake, ate juicy fish sandwiches and played in the water off quiet sugary white-sand beaches. And, when looking past ever-present BP-paid crews scouting for oil in orange and yellow vests, it was beautiful.

Huge questions loom over this disaster - eg how to stop the leak or divvy up BP's reimbursement to local businesses (and whether strip clubs should get a slice) - but one still stands out for me the most: Why aren't more tourists going?

Tourism -- the number-two revenue earner for the four states affected (with over 140 million visitors annually) -- is the easiest way for individuals to contribute to these hurt communities. Other than Louisiana, Gulf Shores, Alabama and the a dozen western-most miles of Florida's 800 miles of Gulf beaches, you can swim in the beaches at this point. Yet cancellations and dwindling future bookings appear to be on the rise.

Of course, some tourists are coming. The dad of a vacationing Kansan family told me at Gulf Shores National Seashore in Pensacola, 'We thought it was an important lesson for our kids: just to come. We keep it flexible. If it gets closed here, we'll go further down the coast.'

That said, they weren't alone in the water. A national park volunteer pointed out a tar ball a few feet away from us: a nickel-sized, flaky, dark-red object I would have mistaken for some sort of dried algae or a rock.

Apparently that doesn't make the water unswimmable. But I wondered how many tar balls are too much?

It's not a question easily answered. Though water and air quality is apparently tested frequently, no local BP, national park or DEP agents could tell me precisely when or where the testings took place. Nor could I find the answers on the network of overlapping agency websites stemming the Deepwater Horizon Response team.

What the region needs is a daily updated Gulf Coast Tourism Map that gives potential travelers enough information to avoid any premature cancellations of beaches that are still safe to swim in. The best starting point I've seen is the recently launched NOAA map. With it, you can zoom into individual beaches and see what varying degrees of oil has washed ashore. Unfortunately it doesn't tell what the degrees mean (ie what is 'light oiling'?) - or what warning flags fly on the beach on a given day. In addition, such warning flags as the double-red flag (advising against entering the water) confusingly refer to either riptide currents or oil.

Once visitors are here, volunteering is another way to help - but within certain boundaries. Only trained crews are allowed to handle oil or wildlife. Some local grassroots organizations have set up DIY tar ball pick-up teams. Though I sympathize with their plights, it's not a good idea. Only trained crews are allowed to handle oil or wildlife, with reason. The materials are toxic and must be disposed in a proper way to ensure it doesn't get into water or food sources.

Instead, look to join pre-beach cleans or simply expand the eyes and ears of oil clean-up efforts. While in Pensacola, a national park volunteer and I spotted an oil-absorbed netting that had washed ashore. We flagged a nearby BP-crew boat, who had the netting bagged and taken away within five minutes.

A week ago, I saw my first dolphin in my life -- and couldn't help but wonder what might come of it. It's unlikely it was the same that died from oil off Pensacola Thursday, but unfortunately more will come. The story will get worse. The oil will spread. And, no, tourism cannot stop it. But it can help minimize the 'economic recovery' the region will face, per President Obama's Oval Office speech last week.

And sometimes that, or simply a little moral support to communities in crisis, or even going to an oil-hit 'beach destination' to see a free Jimmy Buffet concert (Alabama's Gulf Shores on July 1) or see an inland attraction (Pensacola's free Blue Angels air shows on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings), beats another day at the beach.

Check here for links for volunteering options.

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