US tourism chiefs claim tourists are starting to return to the coastline hit by the country’s biggest oil disaster.

Alabama Tourism director Lee Sentell told WTM delegates yesterday holidaymakers were returning to the state where 42 miles of beach account for 25% of all tourism revenues.

The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster led to a loss of half a billion dollars in tourism revenues for the state, which had predicted revenues would be 15% up for 2010.

Speaking on World Responsible Tourism Day, Sentell said: “Reservations are already up; people who missed a beach vacation last year will come next year. As far as the disaster for the tourism industry goes, we feel that part is over.”

Visit Florida chief marketing officer Will Seccombe said the state, which sits below Alabama, would continue to be as attractive to holidaymakers. “In the long term Florida is a very powerful destination and will continue to be. I am very optimistic people will come back.”

But tourism bosses admitted they had learnt valuable lessons from the disaster, particularly how to spend marketing budgets.

Sentell said money was poured into countering negative perceptions of Alabama’s beaches too soon. “We spent money until the day the oil hit the beach saying the beaches are beautiful, come on down. You would turn over the TV and see how soon the oil was going to hit. We were throwing [away] money we should have saved to counter perceptions on TV.”

Visit Florida put funding into consumer webcams and videos to promote the beaches as clean and safe to visit. “We adopted consumer-generated content and offered Floridians the chance to tell the story,” said.

He added: “We will continue to be reminded over the years [about the disaster] and it’s our job to overcome that doubt.”  [possible quote you could cut?]

Alabama department of environmental management director Lance Lefleur said recent tests showed there was no oil present near the shore and less than 1% in seafood.