Tourism-Dependent Economies are Financial Pitfalls

I dislike tourism as a general way of making a profit, but I also acknowledge that it can be one method for a community to support itself. People have to travel for work reasons, other people enjoy traveling on holiday and for other reasons, and the end result is that people are moving from place to place and they need places to stay, eat, and do things. Communities can generate local income and jobs by creating space for tourists, and the industry can become an important part of a local economy, potentially even a driver.

In arguments with friends and locals about tourism, sometimes I feel like I’m talking endlessly in circles, because people seem to be missing the point I’m making. When I criticise the industry here and the way it locks people into dead-end service jobs, destroys the environment, and makes the climate actively hostile for locals, they seem to believe that I hate tourists and think they shouldn’t come here. That’s not the issue. The issue for me is that the community has become, like many other communities across the US, solely dependent on tourism, and that is dangerous.

This should be common economic sense. Everyone knows not to put all your eggs in one basket, right? I think of the coast as being a lot like Summerton in The Shattering. It’s a place so beautiful and magical that strange things seem to compel people to come here, stay here, spend money here. And it’s a place that has become so dependent on tourism that people will do anything to make sure the industry stays alive, because allowing it to collapse would spell the end of the community. Boosters go to great lengths to keep tourists here without reflecting on their impact on the community, or thinking about what might happen at the end of the line.

Because, let’s face it, this is a beautiful place. And people want to visit it for that reason; one of the reasons I’ve chosen to stay here despite the fact that it’s not the best locale career-wise or socially is because it’s pretty and I like it here. And there’s no reason people shouldn’t visit, and shouldn’t be able to have a good time while they’re here. The problem is when we’re relying solely on outsiders for our survival, and when everything is being slowly eaten by tourists and second-homers, an outgrowth of the tourism industry that inevitably follows when a region becomes known as a vacation destination.

The problem the community faces is not an epidemic of tourism, although I am as irritated by everyone else by the absurdly high cost of living, the obnoxious summer traffic, the ridiculous crowds and annoying questions when I’m trying to go about my tasks of daily living. It’s the fact that there’s nothing else. Almost everyone working on the coast is working in some aspect of the tourism industry, and is not being paid enough to reasonably survive, let alone do things like saving for the future, buying property, or building a life. That means of course that they in turn can’t travel and spend their dollars elsewhere.

There are some government jobs here, but not many. And the funding for those jobs is in constant jeopardy thanks to the state’s perilous budget and the fact that many people travel out of the county for necessities, reducing the amount of sales tax collected. I made a deliberate choice to lease my car in-county earlier this year; not everyone thinks about that or considers local sales tax when making big purchases like appliances and vehicles. From speaking to people like local police officers, I’m well aware that government employees in Mendocino County in general make starting wages much lower than the rest of the state and have minimal benefits.

The rest of the jobs here are all associated with the marijuana industry, part of the vast and thriving black market that many people turn to in order to support themselves because there are no other choices. That comes with its own problems and dangers; talk about missed opportunities to collect sales tax, among other things. While huge amounts of money flow through the county as a result of the industry, not a lot of that money stays in the county, and people who want to work legally and make a living obviously can’t be associated with the industry.

Yet, the county seems very resistant to attempts to explore alternatives that could expand the local economy. The goal here is not to replace tourism, which is here to stay and will always be part of the economy. It is instead to supplement it, to create and support other opportunities for local industry that would create more diversity. And might well create an actual middle class in the county, instead of a highly stratified class system of people locked into the service industry versus the handful of large businesses profiting from tourists and the second homers, who aren’t part of the community at all. The singleminded focus on tourism makes no economic sense, and leaves a lot of businesspeople out in the cold because their interests don’t necessarily always align with the trade.

We should be excited about more opportunities for local economic growth and development, like the nascent local food movement that’s trying to make a go of it and is specifically gearing itself for local audiences, not the tourist trade, though of course farmers are happy to supply inns, hotels, and restaurants. We should be thinking about economic diversity and the potential that lies within, rather than focusing on pinning all our hopes to one thing that could fall apart, leaving us holding the bag.