Much of the oil has dissipated from the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that haunted the Gulf of Mexico last year, but one of the worst man-made disasters in US history is still taking its toll on tourism to the region.
The BP oil spill eventually leaked more than 200 million gallons of oil into the water, alarming visitors just as the Gulf states were gearing up for the high season, between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Even though the leaking well was capped mid-July, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas (which saw significantly less oil on its shores than the other states) were hurt by the perception of the oil spill in the months that followed.
"The news continued to show oiled pelicans and areas on the barrier islands which gave everyone the impression that the Gulf beaches were one big cauldron of oil," Mobile, Alabama resident Tilmon Brown said. "Not the case by any stretch of the imagination. I would put our sugar-white Alabama beaches up against any in the world."
BP has pledged more than $117 million to promote tourism to the region, but Gulf cities and businesses are bracing for another tough season as the fight to change perception continues. A study commissioned by the Louisiana Office of Tourism indicates that visitor spending will not return to normal levels until 2013, based on similar oil spills in Alaska and Mexico.
While some beaches contain remnants of the spill (Louisiana's Elmer Island still has tar balls), any oil that does wash ashore is quickly removed by BP crews. Beyond the beaches, there is plenty to do, few crowds to fight off, and many hotels are offering free meals and resort credits on top of low rates.
Watch the Blue Angels fly at 8:30 am every Tuesday and Wednesday at the Naval Aviation Museum in their home base of Pensacola. Down the panhandle in the city of Clearwater, Winter the Dolphin is a fan favourite at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The dolphin was caught in a crab trap and lost her tail, an injury few survive. But her rehabilitation success has inspired a new movie starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd; on-location filming at the aquarium wrapped in December.
Gambling is still alive and well in Biloxi, where you can game at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino or the family-friendly Treasure Bay. But Biloxi's true highlight is the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, celebrating the works of modernist potter and Biloxi native George Ohr in a four-acre campus designed by architect Frank Gehry.
The Mobile Carnival Museum displays lavish costumes from past and present, and lays Mobile's claim to being the first US Mardi Gras celebration, superseding New Orleans. Golfers should head farther south to play one of the nine courses as part of Golf Gulf Shores and stay in one of the many condos that overlook the beaches.
The coastal regions of the state have are prime for camping, fishing and swamp tours. If you make it for Labor Day weekend, celebrate the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival in Morgan City. The seemingly bizarre combo honours workers in the two largest local industries, fishing and oil.
After a number of hurricanes and years of neglect, the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston was restored in 1990. Upcoming performances include a conversation with Shirley MacLaine (1 May), Galveston Symphony Orchestra (8 May) and Stomp (13 to 15 May). In Port Arthur, 90 miles east of Houston, the Museum of the Gulf Coast showcases the natural history of the region as well as its pop culture history, featuring a Music Hall of Fame with legends like Janis Joplin.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of gallons leaked from the oil spill. More than 200 million gallons of oil were leaked into the water.