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How Santa Barbara's Oil Spill Could Affect Tourism

For Santa Barbara tourism, the recent oil spill could present a crude reality.
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Bagged oil on Refugio Beach, in Santa Barbara County. (Photo: Max Ufberg/Pacific Standard)

Bagged oil on Refugio Beach, in Santa Barbara County. (Photo: Max Ufberg/Pacific Standard)

In response to the ruptured pipeline that has left 105,000 gallons of crude oil floating near Santa Barbara, El Capitan and Refugio state beaches, two very popular camping destinations located just 20 miles west of the Pacific Standard office will be closed over the next few days. This weekend, of course, is Memorial Day, and closing two popular camping sites during summer's three day kick-off could have negative economic repercussions.

“Obviously our campers spend money when they come into the region, so there could be short-term economic impacts with this closure,” says Richard Rozzelle, California State Parks district superintendent, whose decision it was to close the beaches. “We’re always at capacity this time of year anyway. Memorial Day weekend is the kick off for summer: hotels, restaurants, campgrounds—everything’s sold out.”


• Reporting From the Edge of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill: A collection of on-the-ground pictures and observations from Pacific Standard's staff.

Santa Barbara County will lose money by virtue of turning away campers, but there could also be a ripple effect from the oil-induced closure that changes how people feel about these beaches going forward. A study by Oxford Economics, commissioned by the Louisiana Office of Tourism months after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, found that 26 percent of people who had previously intended to visit Louisiana canceled or postponed their trip after the spill. And as the non-profit Conversations for Responsible Economic Development points out, the report found that the perception overshadowed the actual impacts of the spill. “A quarter of people thought that leisure activities (swamp tours, boating and hiking) were closed because of the spill when in fact this was not the case,” the researchers write, going on to say that:

The seafood industry was particularly impacted by perceptions: for example, over half of people surveyed thought that Louisiana oysters were unsafe to eat although evidence demonstrated otherwise. 44% of respondents thought the oil spill impacts were the same or worse as the 2005 hurricanes (including Hurricane Katrina).

Hoping to earn back the trust of tourists, Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama—with help from BP—spent millions to get the word out that most of their beaches were actually oil free and family friendly.

Closing El Capitan and Refugio this weekend is a safety issue, Rozzelle says, and it is not without precedent: Both beaches, along with many others, have been closed a handful of times throughout the past year due to wildfire. But the reputational ramifications of an oil spill—fueled by images of bagged crude and oil-drenched pelicans—could be an additional damage the county must now deal with.