The False Promise of Tourism

I’ve been following NPR’s coverage of the proposals to increase broadband penetration in the United States because it’s a topic of interest to me, and recently they did a feature which dovetailed nicely with another interest of mine: The damage that tourism does to communities. An NPR reporter traveled to Trinity County to talk with people up there about the broadband plans, and I found the segment quite fascinating.

Trinity County is a lot like Mendocino County in some ways. It was initially a timber heavy county. Then, the timber industry started to dissolve, which tends to happen when you cut down all the trees. The backup plan? Tourism. Trinity County began promoting tourism, heavily, in the hopes of revitalizing its economy. Like Mendocino, Trinity County is pretty, and has lots of outdoor things, and it was marketed as a vacation destination.

But, like the timber industry, the tourism industry also started to weaken. As the economy has worsened, Trinity County has found itself in dire straits. People are not traveling as much or they are staying closer to home. That same remoteness which made Trinity a selling point is now its undoing. Tourists aren’t willing to travel that far.

Yet, the county had already engineered itself to cater to tourists. At the behests of boosters, Trinity fundamentally shifted. The same thing is happening here. We’ve been a luxury real estate market for a long time, but it’s gotten worse. Fewer and fewer local businesses provide goods and services which people who actually live here actually need.

Groups like the Fort Bragg Promotions Committee want to tell us that this is beneficial. That the slow erasure of traditional business here is a good thing and that the rows of overpriced boutiques selling stuff we don’t want and can’t use is a good thing. That the local economy is improving. But here’s the thing. I don’t see any waitresses promoting tourism. I don’t see store clerks getting gung ho about tourism. I don’t see unemployed mill workers getting excited about tourism.

I see business owners getting excited about tourism as a source of revenue and I see splits occurring as people attempt to feed us this pablum. The false promise of tourism. Somehow, magically, if we just attract more tourists, everything will get better. This deliberately ignores the fact that tourism inherently creates a service economy. Great for the owners of the businesses providing those services. Not so great for everyone else. The gap between rich and poor widens, it becomes more and more difficult to survive, and resentments simmer. These are all things I have ranted about before here and elsewhere; I don’t feel the need to get into detail for the umpteenth time.

It’s difficult to start a business, so it’s not like people who are currently making minimum wage behind a counter can break out of that and tap into this tourist market. It’s impossible to buy a house, basically, so people move from crappy rental to crappy rental. Paying too much, most of the time, because real estate values are highly overinflated, still, and landlords are trying to keep current with their jumbo loan payments or their refi payments.

And still. People continue to promote Mendocino County. They continue to act like tourism is the greatest thing ever. That it will work wonders for the community. At the expense of talking or thinking about anything else. Apparently it’s only possible to focus on one thing at once when you are a civic leader, and since all of our civic leaders currently are profiting (from overvalued real estate, from tourism), they see no interest in talking about the problematic aspects of tourism and the status quo.

What happened in Trinity County, you ask? Why, everyone there is completely fucked, that’s what happened. People were on the radio practically crying because all they want is some broadband which they might conceivably use to get out of the hole that the people in charge dug and threw everyone into. A teacher talked about the fact that her school only had 10 computers and didn’t get broadband so students couldn’t do the supplemental work in their textbooks. About how students were missing out on valuable opportunities which they might use to get a chance to get ahead.

And why are people acting like this can’t happen in Mendocino County? Still, I see rampant promotion of tourism. I see no discussion of the very serious costs of tourism. I see people acting like there are absolutely no problems with tourism. And blaming the people who are living in poverty because of tourism, the people who have no voices with which to protest. They are uncomfortable to look at so they are silenced because they belie the false promise and point to the reality, which is that a handful of people are profiting while everyone else suffers.

This, they want to tell us, is good for us in the long term. I’ve even heard “trickle down economics” thrown around. No. You know what happens when a handful of people get wealthier at the expense of a few? The gap between rich and poor widens and widens and widens and the middle class disappears, that’s what happens. Because those wealthy people control the assets, they control the government, and they subsequently control our future. And wealthy people, by and large, are not going to act/vote against their interests, which means that they have absolutely no reasons whatsoever to address the tourism issue. Why should they?

If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West, which provides an overview not only of tourism in the West, but of the myriad problems associated with it. It’s not just me frothing at the mouth about this. Hal Rothman’s book is superb, not least because he provides a lot of really detailed research, with hard numbers, showing why tourism is such a big problem and why we need to talk about it. I kind of want to order a gross of these and pass them out to Mendocino County’s wealthiest; they won’t listen to me, but maybe they will listen to Rothman.