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Florida's tourism industry wary of oil spill's impact on business

Even without oil touching sand on Florida's Panhandle, Jim Phillips watched business at his Pensacola dive shop plunge 75 percent over fears of soiled Gulf waters. At Port St. Joe, wedding coordinator Lynne Carr is trying to calm brides panicked over their dream beach weddings possibly being ruined by the stench of petroleum.

Fear among tourists may be expanding quicker than the oil spill off the Gulf Coast, already costing the region millions of dollars as its peak summer tourism season approaches. And with some scientists imagining oil eventually hitting South Beach, anxiety is following that hypothetical track up Florida's East Coast.

For many in Florida's $60 billion tourism industry, the spill is a more frightening version of a hurricane threat, when fears of impending havoc leave hotel rooms empty and beaches barren on picture-perfect days.

The grim novelty of the country's worst oil spill since 1989 has the Sunshine State's tourism leaders arguing over the best way to face the crisis and remind vacationers that -- at least for the moment -- all of Florida's coastline remains open for business.

"Let's not jump to conclusions before the event has even happened," said Andy Newman, spokesman for the Florida Keys tourism bureau. "When I hear messages out there saying the Keys is basically going to be devastated, that's not appropriate."

At MTB Divers in Pensacola, Phillips finds himself on the front lines of both an ecological and marketing debacle.

Already, he has lost l7 trips through June -- each costing between $100 and $150 a person. That includes six German divers scheduled to make a trip Saturday. "Pretty much when they came out with the first alert that said 'Pensacola,' we started to get calls," he said. "I wouldn't say we're crippled. But we're hurting."

The crisis threatens to rob the Panhandle of a marketing coup as a leading beach arbiter rethinks his short-term affection for the area. Stephen Leatherman, a Florida International University professor best known as "Dr. Beach," said he may drop a Panhandle location from his annual Top Ten list because of the spill.

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