How travelers can help the Gulf Coast

April 20 marks the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that sent 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Reporting from Gulf Shores, Alabama, CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg explains how Gulf Coast communities are recovering from the economic and environmental damage, and how travelers can help make a difference.

The BP Deepwater Horizon spill became the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, releasing more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico between April 20 and July 15. As tar balls and tar mats washing up on shores, the spill had a devastating impact on Gulf Coast just as communities were nearing the height of their summer tourist season.

Even areas that weren't affected by oil suffered from a perception issue as travelers postponed or canceled their vacation plans over concerns of contaminated waters and beaches.

Gulf-wide, based on figures from Mississippi, Alabama and Northwest Florida, lodging revenue was down 12.9 percent when comparing tourism revenue from May-August 2010 versus 2009. That's equal to nearly $100 million in that peak summer period alone.

Some communities were hit harder than others. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, for example, took 41.5 percent hit in lodging revenues during those months. The Pensacola Bay area in Florida lost $10 million in lodging revenues that summer.

How quickly will it recover? Based on findings from a recent study from Texas A&M's Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, 30 percent return to normalcy this year, 70 percent next year, and full recovery by 2013. But for many local business owners who rely on tourism, that's not soon enough.

But there's some good news: Gulf Coast communities in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, quickly sprang into action with ad campaigns, promotions and events to get tourists back to the area to see the beaches and wetlands for themselves.

The main priority has been to regain the public's trust in terms of health and safety, and many areas are now reporting strong spring break numbers and anticipate a robust summer season.

Meanwhile, the seafood industry took a huge hit over fishing closures and concerns that Gulf seafood wasn't safe to consume. The Gulf of Mexico saw a 39 percent decline in commercial fishing landings between 2009 and 2010, representing a $62 million loss in dockside sales.

At the height of the crisis, more than 36 percent of Gulf waters were closed; today, less than 0.4 percent is closed. Overall, more than 300,000 Gulf seafood organisms have been sampled, using methods developed by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) Administration and the Gulf states, with almost every sample showing no trace of oil or dispersant.

The state of Alabama, which has received $38 million in tourism marketing grants from BP, has launched the Serve the Gulf (www.servethegulf.com) seafood safety awareness campaign, and points out that right now, Gulf seafood is the most tested stock in the world.

Louisiana received $48 million from BP for seafood marketing and testing, and an additional $45 million for tourism marketing. Recently, the state spent $4.2 million on its "Louisiana, Pick Your Passion" campaign, focusing on the state's culinary, culture and recreational options.

Mississippi got a $15 million grant from BP, followed by an additional $3 million to the coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson. Part of that original funding went toward a massive "Wish You Were Here" campaign, which included TV and radio spots, YouTube videos and online giveaways.

Florida, which has received a total of $82 million from BP, was recently granted $30 million for the Northwest Florida Tourism Council. That money will be used TV, radio, social media, and smartphone apps in core markets, as well as in emerging markets that now have access to the area thanks to the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport that opened in May 2010.

As we head into the high tourist season, Gulf coast states are continuing to roll out incentives for travelers:

ALABAMA

Kaiser Realty will offer midweek savings of 25 percent if you stay Sunday through Thursday with a three-night minimum stay, valid May 29-August 4, 2011. Or travel with the family this spring and rent a three-bedroom home for three nights or more and get two passes for the glass-bottomed dolphin cruise, 10 tickets to The Track family recreation center, and $10 off at the Original Oyster House, valid through May 7, 2011.

Gulf Shores Rentals is offering value-added deals for spring travel if you book by April 26, 2011. Stay two or more nights and get the third night free, with condos starting from $99 a night, valid May 1-26, 2011. Or stay four nights between May 27 and June 17 and get 10 percent off your stay. For each night you stay, get one free round of golf, one deep-sea fishing fare, free admission aboard a dolphin cruise, admission to Waterville USA, one movie rental, and four tickets to The Track Amusement Center...all daily (not valid on date of departure).

Perdido Beach Resort is discounting its room rates for the second annual Hangout Music Fest taking place May 20-23: Stay for two nights and pay $229 a night, for a $60 savings; or stay three nights from $209 a night and save $120 of regular prices.

For more deals like this, visit http://www.gulfshores.com/packages-deals.

FLORIDA

At the Sandestin Golf and Beach Vacation Resort (http://www.sandestin.com), book with 21-day advance notice this spring and get a two-bedroom villa from $139; or look for discounts on last-minute inventory with the Hot Dates and Rates option, with rates from $115 a night; or get a free night with the purchase of four nights. Resort guests get to take advantage of the beach as well as free tennis, biking, fitness center and kayaks.

In South Walton Beach, book a vacation rental for three nights or more with Garrett Realty (www.garrettrealty.com) at Seagrove Beach and save 15 percent through May 15, 2011.

Panama City's Giving Tanks (www.visitpanamacitybeach.com/giving-tanks) promotion is a city-wide program with deals and offerings from several participating properties including:

- Throughout the month of May, travelers staying a minimum of three nights receive a $50 fuel credit upon check-in to any Sterling Resorts property. Stay seven nights or more, and receive a $100 fuel credit.

- Buy three nights at any Oaseas Resorts property and receive a $25 gas card and 2 p.m. late check out plus 25 percent off all watersports with Adventures at Sea Watersports. Rates start from $89 a night.

- Bay Point Marriott is offering a $50 gas card for a four-night stay and $100 for a seven-night stay between May 1 - September 9, 2011.

MISSISSIPPI

The Wish Card (http://visitmscoast.org/wishcard) promotion, part of the Wish You Were Here campaign, invites visitors to book a consecutive two-night stay at an area participating lodging property and receive a $100 gift card. This deal is only valid through April 20, 2011

Book a minimum two-night stay online at the Grand Biloxi Casino, Hotel & Spa (www.grandcasinobiloxi.com) and get one night free when you use the promo code BOGO.

At the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi (www.hardrockbiloxi.com), book a room for $150 and get $50 credit at Ruth's Chris Steak House and $25 off a spa treatment through May 26, 2011.

LOUISIANA

The Ritz-Carlton New Orleans (www.ritzcarlton.com) has dropped its summer rates to $169 a night, based on availability, down drastically from its usual rate of $409 a night. Not only that, but the hotel will help guests coordinate a volunteer experience to help those affected by the oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. Spend a day with the St. Bernard Project, rebuilding homes and doing community outreach, or participate in a Habitat for Humanity project.

The Hilton New Orleans Airport (www1.hilton.com) a bed and breakfast package for up to four people, starting from $149 a night when you book a two-night stay.

Crowne Plaza New Orleans Airport Hotel (www.ichotelsgroup.com) has a family-friendly package from $169 a night that includes up to four tickets to the Audubon Zoo, Aquarium and Insectarium for every two-night stay.

For more information and news you can use, visit PeterGreenberg.com.

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