'The only oil on our beaches is suntan oil,' say Gulf hotels to vacationers

Gulf hotels want you to know 'the only oil on our beaches is suntan oil'With the official start of summer this week, hotels from Tampa Bay to West Palm Beach, to islands off the Florida coast, to Boca Raton and Biloxi, are looking to catch the free wave of publicity Orbitz received recently for an open beach guarantee that offered to reimburse travelers for hotel costs if oil wrecked their beach vacation.

Seeking to lure customers back to Florida after weeks of bad news about oil gushing from the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Orbitz recently announced that it would refund a customer's hotel costs if a government agency closed a beach -- or declared it dangerous -- within 20 miles of the property. Orbitz said bookings are down this summer at Gulf hotels because of concerns about oil.

In the last week, a spate of copycat policies appeared, with hoteliers promising similar guarantees in an effort to overcome perceptions that tar balls and oil slicks are despoiling popular white sand beaches. Most beaches remain open, according to a survey of tourism web sites this week by CNN, with the exception of several coastal areas in Alabama and Louisiana.

Hilton Worldwide trumpted a "beach satisfaction guarantee," which provides that through July 31 guests scheduled to stay in the company's beachfront properties -- including those within a 20-minute drive from a beach -- from the Gulf Coast to South Florida will not be charged if their vacation is disrupted by the oil spill.

"Our hotels are working closely with tourism officials to let visitors know we are open for business, our beaches are open and a great place for family vacations," said Lisa Cole, Hilton's director of corporate communications for the southeast U.S.

The guarantee, which applies to scores of Hilton properties, provides vacationers with a refund, or alternative accommodations, and waives cancellation fees and early departure charges, if a nearby beach is affected by the spill. The company does not hinge its guarantee--as other properties have done--on beach closures by federal and state authorities.

Recent clean beach guarantees also include a slate of offerings for properties on Sanibel and Captiva Islands off the southwestern Florida coast that are now posted on Facebook.

"Because Florida was 'grouped' as a whole as being affected by the spill, but Southwest Florida has yet to be affected physically, many resorts and hotels felt their reservations might be affected by the stigma that all of Florida's beaches were being affected," said Emily Kettner, marketing manager at 'Tween Waters Inn.

'Tween hasn't experienced any cancellations because of the spill and is sold out for the Fourth of July weekend, Kettner said, but she attributed that in part to the fact that the "Clean 'Tween" refund policy is in place.

But buyer beware, hotels on Sanibel and Captiva Islands offer refunds for rates and taxes if a vacation is "disrupted" by oil, but what one hotel considers a disruption might not be thought of in the same way as its neighbor.

For example, the Sanibel Sunset Beach Resort promises "that beaches will be oil and tar ball free during a guest's stay. If a vacation is disrupted, a 100% refund will be provided." Fine print on the resort's website, however, says that the policy will go into effect if oil prompts a federal or state agency to clean the beach, or close it due to safety concerns.

For other hotel properties, it's difficult to find where the beach guarantee policies are spelled out on individual websites, requiring travelers to call to discover details.

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