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Despite oil spill, many beaches still drawing crowds

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. -- Marilyn Cave imagined her favorite stretch of white beach here soiled by oily muck. But Cave -- who said she has come to Pensacola Beach ``a zillion times'' -- packed up her bags from Chattanooga and came anyway.

"It looks marvelous,'' Cave, a marketing executive, said as she looked out on a beach that seemed to be mostly oil-free Sunday afternoon. "From everything we've seen on TV, we were surprised to see it looking this good. And the water is amazing.''

Even with tourism taking a devastating hit this holiday weekend, the besieged beaches on Florida's Gulf Coast can still draw a crowd.

Thousands of people lined the sand here Sunday afternoon, basking under a cloudless sky and braving both strong surf and a local health advisory warning against swimming in the Gulf.

Asked why they still come to a now-notorious destination, and tourists offered a range of motivations from duty during hard times to skepticism that oil could be that big of a problem.

On a recent afternoon at the Naval Aviation Museum at the Pensacola air base, Jim and Tracy McManus were on their way to the museum gift shop with their two young sons. They traveled from Eau Claire, Wis., to Dauphin Island, Ala. Jim said they wrestled over canceling the trip as the oil crisis worsened.

``Then we just said, `Forget it,' '' Jim recalled. ``We're just going to spend some money down there because they need it.''

Kathy Sheridan held a pair of flip-flops as she walked barefoot through the surf here last week, indifferent to the congealed tar squishing beneath her.

``I've got oil on my feet,'' the sixth-grade teacher from Alabama explained as she revealed two rusty blotches on her heel and the bottom of one foot. ``It's still beach, and I still love it.''

The vagaries of the oil spill's siege on this beach can test the loyalty of even the most devoted vacationer. On June 23, Pensacola beaches were soiled by gooey petroleum. That's been the worst impact so far, but congealed bits of oil known as ``tar balls'' are common.

When Sheridan arrived, a ribbon of tar balls marked high tide up and down the beach, and it was hard to walk through the surf without stepping on them.

``It feels like bubble gum,'' said Jason Black, as he walked with his mother, Veronica, along Pensacola Beach early last week. Both were in ankle-deep water, and both had a few oily splotches on their feet to mark the trip. The next day, a yellow, almost rust-like stain covered much of the beach's wet sand.

With BP funding hundreds of clean-up crews -- some wearing headlamps to scoop up soiled sand overnight -- the beach can improve rapidly only to get soiled again days later when the tide brings in a new wave of tar balls or oily surf.

Sharon Bynum has been taking her four kids -- the youngest is 17 -- to Navarre since they were little. ``We always stay at the Regency,'' the Plano, Texas, resident said of the beachfront condo tower behind her. ``We always get the same condo.''

But on this stormy day last week, the waves brought a moderate sprinkling of tar balls to Navarre's beach. It was enough to have Bynum doubting the tradition's future.

``It's hard because this could be the last time we're all here together,'' she said. ``I want when my kids have kids, for this to be the place where we all . . . reminisce.''

The numbers suggest such dilemmas are the exception, with most of Pensacola's visitors deciding to stay away.

Companies that rent vacation homes -- the most popular form of lodging here -- report bookings are off by as much as 50 percent.

`It's definitely getting worse,'' said Ira Mae Bruce, owner of Century 21 Island View Realty and one of Navarre's biggest vacation-home managers. Bookings are off by half this summer, Bruce said, making returning customers even more appreciated.

``We had a family that was here the week before last,'' Bruce said. ``They said they have been coming to the same complex, the Sugar Beach Townhomes, for 27 years.''

This weekend kicked off a crucial 10-day stretch for Pensacola, capped by next weekend's air show by the Navy's aerial acrobatics squad, the Blue Angels. But with popular harbors closed by booms and vacationers unsure if the beaches will be safe for swimming, the tourism industry is bracing for another letdown following a disappointing Fourth.

Customers usually have to wait 90 minutes to rent a Jet Ski at John Ehrenreich's Bonifay Water Sports on a busy holiday weekend. But all 10 were available as lunch approached.

``There is no comparison to this year from last year,'' Ehrenreich.

At a florist shop off the main highway leading to the beach, a sign pleads: ``Flowerama is Lo$ing Touri$t Dollar$.'' Inside the empty shop of flamingo baubles and sea-shell art, floral design manager Marchell Horne said a typical Sunday on a Fourth weekend would bring in about $2,600 in sales.

``I'll be lucky to do $300 today,'' she said.

Still, Pensacola Beach was hardly empty for the holiday weekend.

At Pensacola Beach Properties, a vacation rental brokerage, about 80 percent of their units are booked for the seven days between the Fourth and the air show. But the summer has been marred by cancellations from even the most loyal customers, many of whom send in apologetic e-mails explaining their decisions.

``It's been very emotional even having to read them,'' said Connie Patterson, an agent in the beachside office. ``The stories of people who have been coming for years, and what they're going to miss, and what their children aren't going to see.''

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