Tourism industry panics about Fla. shark attacks

One person killed, two injured recently

July 03, 2005|By COX NEWS SERVICE

SEAGROVE BEACH, Fla. - The normally carefree beach-goers along Florida's Panhandle had to seriously rethink going into the water last week after two recent shark attacks. Most decided to stay dry.

The real panic, however, took place in the area's billion-dollar-plus tourist industry. Over the past few years, the beaches have been buffeted by negative publicity spawned by deadly riptides, devastating hurricanes and now a Southern version of Jaws.

Heading into their busiest week of the year, tourism officials tried to put the best face possible on two horrific shark attacks - just 48 hours and 80 miles apart along the Gulf Coast - that generated international headlines.

One left a 14-year-old Louisiana girl, Jamie Marie Daigle, dead in Walton County. A 16-year-old Tennessee boy, Craig Hutto, had his right leg amputated after an attack in the waters off Gulf County.

On Friday, another tourist was bitten on the ankle by a shark, about 280 miles south off Boca Grande. Austrian Armin Projer, 19, was in good condition at a Fort Myers hospital.

"We have a growing human population, and people enjoy the beach," said Paula Pickett, director of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council. "They know there is risk in anything you do, and people weigh the odds. Will they be more cautious? Yes. Will they stop going to the beach? Probably not."

Panhandle officials hope Pickett is right. Billions of dollars and thousands of jobs depend on tourists who flock to the sugar-white beaches and warm, emerald-green waters.

Two years ago, riptides took the lives of six people in two days along Panhandle beaches, unleashing a wave of negative publicity.

Last year, Hurricane Ivan's outer edge scoured the coast, damaging condominiums and tearing away hundreds of "walkovers" - long wooden stairways that lead to the beach. A few weeks ago, Tropical Storm Arlene swept away many of the stairways, just repaired after Ivan.

"We bounced back after Ivan and Arlene right away," said Kriss Titus, director of the Walton County Tourist Development Council. "We're a coastal community, and we have storms and emergencies like this that you just have to deal with."

There were few cancellations for the Fourth of July holiday, tourism officials reported. But most of those reservations were made weeks or months before the recent shark attacks, and it was difficult to assess the long-term impact of the latest round of bad press for the beaches.

Scientists stress that shark attacks on humans are rare. Beach-goers face a much greater risk from drowning or even lightning strikes. But few events generate more gut-level fear than an attack by a shark. Many of the tourists who lined the Panhandle's beaches by week's end stayed out of the water, and the few who ventured in didn't wade beyond knee-deep.

Seemingly contradictory warning flags flew along the coast. A green flag on top indicated a "low [water] hazard" and calm conditions. A purple flag below indicated "dangerous marine life."

Tourists were given tip sheets on how to avoid sharks, and helicopters flew low over the water in an attempt to spot sharks swimming close to shore.

Hordes of people from metro Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; and Nashville, Tenn., flock to the Panhandle beaches every summer. The influx has fueled the tourism industry and sent real estate prices skyrocketing.

A "running foot" of beachfront in Panama City Beach, which sits between the two recent attack sites, would have cost about $7,000 five years ago, said Robert Warren, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. Today, that same 12 inches of land would set you back more than $100,000, he said.

"You're going to see a lot of the mom-and-pop operations give way to high-rises," Warren said. "There's just not a lot of beachfront left."

There are 51 new hotel or condominium projects under construction or in the planning stages that will add 16,000 hotel rooms along Panama City Beach, Warren said - a 40 percent increase over what's available now.

Warren said that about 4.1 million people a year visit the Bay County beaches. And he predicted that those numbers would increase. There are even plans for an airport that would open the area to national and international travelers.

Tourists spend about $630 million a year along the Bay County beaches and about $685 million in Walton County, to the west.

Tourist officials such as Titus predict that the concern about sharks will soon dissipate.

"When you plan a vacation, you think, `What's it going to cost? What are we going to do? How long are we going to stay?'" Titus said. "You don't say, `Were there any shark attacks?'"

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