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So far, Northwest Fla. beaches unaffected by oil spill

I wrote a post yesterday about Southwest's new service to Northwest Florida, which begins Sunday. A reader, lamenting the oil spill in the Gulf, asked about the condition of those beaches. So earlier today I made a quick call to Dan Rowe, the President/CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, and he said the good news is that the beaches are beautiful today. And the outlook is positive. They're getting frequent reports from NOAA and so far, nothing indicates the spill moving in their direction - for now.

"Right now, we have not been impacted by the oil spill and none of the projections by NOAA show it will head in our area," Rowe said. "We're doing a lot of work trying to remind people to hang in there with us. It's been going on a few weeks and we have not seen anything and we hope that trend continues."

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I met Dan a few months back when he visited Baltimore just after Southwest announced their plans. He's a good guy. And in our interview today he was upbeat, but also realistic about the difficulties the area is facing. This is a big season for them. They have a brand spanking new international airport - one of the first built in the U.S. since 9/11. They have service from a top low-cost carrier. All pluses, but a lot is on the line. In Florida, tourism is lifeblood.

Rowe said travel operators saw cancellations immediately after the spill, but that has leveled off. Still, hotel bookings and such are down from last year at this time, falling from 90% occupancy to around 50% occupancy. He said oeprators have liberalized cancellation policies and some are offering guarantees, including the "Real Fun Guarantee," which offers a $200 credit for a future stay if your vacation is disrupted by the oil spill.

"We're a world class beach that's really going to be fun. [But] it's still going to be a tough summer for us. Right now, we're still in a good place with so much enthusiasm."

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