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galveston Want to help counteract the devastating effects of the BP oil spill … and save money to boot? Pack some sunscreen and head to the Gulf Coast, where travel deals are as plentiful as spicy shrimp gumbo.

According to the Associated Press, Gulf Coast tourism continues to deteriorate as a result of the BP oil spill. Even though any parts of the Gulf shoreline that had been affected by the oil are now clean, tourism rates are still about 20 percent lower than normal, and many local businesses are suffering.

The problem is perception. In spite of the reality — that the Gulf Coast is still an excellent vacation destination offering pristine beaches — travelers are wary of booking trips to a destination branded by the worst oil spill in history. Nowadays, the term “Gulf Coast” evokes notions of tar balls and oil slicks, whereas six months ago it signified fresh seafood, sport fishing and lazy days on the beach.

Local businesses and visitors’ bureaus have been working hard to boost the Gulf Coast image, launching positive advertisements and rolling out tons of travel deals across Mississippi, Florida, Texas and Louisiana. This is good news for anyone considering a trip to the Gulf. We trolled the tourism Web sites of some Gulf area locales and came across quite a few noteworthy offers. Here’s a small sample of what we found:

- Days Inn is offering 20 percent off stays of three or more nights at participating properties on the Gulf Coast.

- Get your fourth night’s stay free at A Beach Bungalow on Siesta Key, Florida.

- Save $200 per week or get your seventh night’s stay free when you rent with A Paradise Vacation Rentals on Anna Marie Island in Florida.

- Stay for five nights and receive an additional two nights’ lodging for free at McCarter Lane Guest House in Long Beach, Mississippi.

There’s no need to feel guilty about capitalizing on the BP oil disaster to save some cash on your vacation. Dozens of Gulf Coast communities depend on the tourism industry, and spending your money in the region is a great way to boost local economies — even if you are paying discounted rates. So start traveling! And if you’re looking for even more ways to help, check out these volunteer resources.

Has the Gulf Coast oil spill affected your travel plans? Will you be heading to the region anytime soon?