UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 9:53am
ORANGE BEACH, Ala. – For all the oil spill claims and cleanup work by BP, retirees from the North may be the best survival bet for some Gulf Coast resort towns this winter.
After a disastrous summer tourism season and a slower-than-normal fall, Northern and Midwestern visitors known as "snowbirds" already are flocking along the Gulf for the winter, filling up condominium parking lots and campgrounds with cars and RVs from states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana.
This annual migration of the AARP set is worth millions to the coastal economy and typically serves a financial bridge for tourist-dependent condominiums, restaurants and stores between the holidays and the start of spring break season, when business picks up again.
This year, snowbirds are critical for the companies and property owners who have suffered for months because of the BP oil spill. Without the snowbirds, some businesses teetering on the edge of solvency may not make it until the weather warms up again.
"You take that away when they didn't have anything to start with and you start a whole new tier of desperation," said Tony Kennon, mayor of this beach town on the Alabama-Florida border.
The local tourism agency is advertising in the Midwest, inviting snowbirds to return to the coast. Winter rates always are far less than summer prices, with many condominium owners renting out their units to Northern visitors for months at a time. Some condominiums and motels are offering even lower prices than normal this year, with prices reduced by two-thirds at a few.
At the Gulf Breeze RV Resort in neighboring Gulf Shores, workers didn't know whether snowbirds would be scared off by images of oil hitting beaches during the summer. Would they go elsewhere this year, perhaps to the East Coast or farther south into Central Florida?
Julie Kenney, who works at the RV park, was relieved to see campers from the Midwest begin arriving earlier than normal in late October. The resort's 250 sites are now about 80 percent full, and it's completely booked after Jan. 1 without any spill-related discounts.
"It would be really difficult if they don't come," said Kenney. "A lot of the snowbirds will travel over to Pensacola (Fla.) to go shopping, so it really helps the whole coast."
Retirees Mark and Diane Schnabel of Linton, Ind., were worried about the oil spill as they planned their trip to the coast earlier this year, but they came anyway. Now, they're glad they did — the beaches are virtually oil-free, the seafood is tasty and a dry fall has made for mild, sunny days.
"We were very concerned about it, but we never thought of not coming," said Diane, relaxing on the beach with her husband. "We already have plans to come next year."
Ron Sandefer researched beach conditions before making the annual trek to the coast with his wife Linda from their home in Paducah, Ky.
"We come here every November and I checked the websites for oil reports and looked at a lot of websites with live cam displays, and we decided it would be just fine," said Sandefer. "I figured it there was a problem somewhere, we could easily find a nice spot. It just didn't look that bad, and it isn't."
Snowbirds are big business in Florida Panhandle communities like Panama City and Destin, where there was little impact from the oil spill. They matter even more in places that were affected by the oil like Perdido Key, Fla., and Alabama, which have a high concentration of condominiums and a reputation for lower prices.
"Those people tend to look more for bargain-basement deals, and those are more likely in areas with lots of condos," said Fred Simmons, a real estate agent and property manager in Pensacola Beach, Fla.
Mike Foster of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau said reservations appear to be on track with past falls and winters, despite the lingering fallout from the oil spill.
"We're feeling optimistic about it," he said. "I think the real test will come at spring break. I think at that time we'll see what kind of memory there is of the oil, be able to see what the perception is of the beach."
Rick and Jean Neal have been coming to the Alabama coast for four or five years from their home in Linwood, Mich. This year, they have a corner condominium overlooking a beach dotted with heavy machines digging deep into the sand to remove the final traces of tar balls.
The oil spill was a worry, they said, and the cleaning machines are loud at times. But the Gulf water is still sparkling, and the weather is so much warmer than in Michigan.
"It's beautiful," said Rick Neal.