Tourism: human circulation considered as consumption. -Guy deBord
WHAT HAPPENS to a quiet island farming and fishing community when it is “discovered” and becomes a tourist resort?Change. It comes in waves, like the tides: slowly at first, but soon enough the water rises and invades the landscape, creating a whole new world. But it’s hard to see what’s happening when you are in the middle of the flow.
At first, a smattering of adventurous, well-meaning people visit the island to experience nature and solitude. They go home and tell their friends about “paradise.” Their friends come on vacation and tell their friends. Soon the news spreads like oil on water.
More people come to vacation, especially families. Islanders put up hotels, restaurants, gift shops, grocery stores, condos, roads and bridges to serve the tourism influx. The building industry booms. Golf courses abound. The PR machine hums. The population swells. New businesses and new job opportunities spring up to serve the swelling population of tourists, workers, and year-round residents. The island becomes a Town. Fees, licenses, and sales and property tax receipts soar. Per capita tourist spending peaks. This is the the rising tide, the emerging Golden Age.
How long will it last?
A flood tide is the cycle in which seawater reaches its highest, peak level. It is set to recede. In the fluid socio-economics of tourism, there is a point in which a destination (the island in this story) can sustain only a certain level of visitor activity. It seems to be humming along, but it too will ebb. It’s nature’s way.
In the 1970s it was the oil embargo. In the 80‘s the bankruptcies began. Today it’s the real estate recession. These are the falling tide, the ebb, that dried up credit for burgeoning tourism communities in the U.S. On our imaginary island resort, the lack of liquidity (pun intended) slowed new construction projects and even more important, rejuvenation of aging buildings and infrastructure. Now some call this once proud resort “worn out.” Like a harbor exposed at low tide, it seems empty, lifeless, dark: lower real estate values, foreclosures, stores shuttered and locked, a population decline, lower sales and tax revenues. And those tourists? They left to find a new place to visit.
After the fall
The story of this island is not over. It’s people and its tourism economy can rise again — like the tide. The way back is through sustainable development. It involves updating facilities, improving quality of life for all islanders, and preserving natural resources. This three-fold process won’t be easy. It requires courage, patience, creativity, and compassion. Is this island up to the challenge? To be continued in my next post …