South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
Florida tourist towns wonder how many are too many
The thing about living in a tourist town — the damn tourists.
Loud, boisterous, boozy, they jam the streets, crowd the bars, pack the restaurants and traipse around town in tank tops emblazoned with weary cliches that suggest we’re living in a sex-crazed, hedonistic paradise. If only.
Worse, vacationers tend to be disgustingly happy, which only exacerbates the mundane day-to-day miseries endured by us locals.
But we abide. Got to. Broward County tolerates 13 million interlopers each (non-pandemic) year because our economy depends on the $10.6 billion they spend while wallowing in the sunshine. Besides, Fort Lauderdale enjoys a number of very nice shops, bars and restaurants (with enough taco joints to feed Juárez) that a town of 183,000 could hardly support without millions of visitors.
But anyone living in a tourist town understands the discontent expressed by Key West residents last fall when they voted to constrain a certain noxious tourist subspecies: the cruise-ship kind.
Key West voters were presented with three ballot choices: 1) Limit the number of passengers allowed to disembark at 1,500 a day; 2) Cap the occupancy of cruise ships docking in Key West at 1,300; 3) Give docking preference to ships with better environmental and health records. Key Westies voted yes on all three by (respectively) 61%,
63% and 81%.
Disgruntled residents had dug up a study indicating cruise passengers contributed only $73 million of the $1.2 billion the island collects in tourist dollars. They insisted that cruise ships pollute their waters. They complained that bigger boats stir up sea-bottom sediment that damages coral reefs.
But I suspect the voters were more bothered by how cruise passengers alter the old island aesthetic; how they hurry ashore with time enough to visit Mallory Square, buy Sloppy Joe rum runners, Margaritaville cheeseburgers-in-paradise (make that cheeseburgers-in-paradise-lost) and pirate-motif knickknacks before embarking for yet another quickie destination.
Island residents grumbled that the cruisers have sucked the funkiness out of Florida’s onetime bastion of idiosyncrasy.
Key West’s not alone among iconic destinations so overrun that the tourist mobs obscure the place’s very allure — a global phenomenon that has introduced a new word to the lexicon: “overtourism.”
Before the pandemic brought a temporary halt to vacation travel, Venice, Cannes and Dubrovnik, Croatia, enacted their own limits on cruise ships. Kyoto, Japan; Hallstatt, Austria; Amsterdam and Charleston, S.C., pondered measures to slow the onslaught of visitors. Rome banned tourists from occupying the Spanish Steps. Peru capped the number of visitors allowed onto Machu Picchu. Reykjavik, Iceland, with a population of less than 400,000, worried that 1.3 million tourists each year was turning the island into a kind of frigid Disney World. In
2017, a protest against overtourism in Barcelona turned violent. In 2019, protesters in northern California hung a banner from the famed Bixby Bridge: “Overtourism is killing Big Sur.”
Key West residents worry less about tourists in general than an unpopular subset. So does Miami Beach, which is altering bar closing times along Ocean Drive to discourage visitors who engage in late-night rowdiness and the occasional gunfight. Miami Beach is also ridding the sidewalks of restaurant barkers who harangue passersby like merchants in a Turkish bazaar. The city wants sophisticated tourists who can revive the old South Beach cool.
This being Florida, some Republican legislators residing several hundred miles from Key West decided that local democracy must yield to the wants of cruise industry lobbyists. A bill percolating through the legislature would bar port cities like Key West from messing with cruise ships.
Fort Lauderdale, erstwhile “spring break capital of the world,” was confronted with overtourism years before it was a thing. After 1985, when 350,000 students overwhelmed the barrier island and re-branded Lauderdale as the wet T-shirt capital of the world, the city engineered a do-over. Inhospitable ordinances were enacted. Nighttime parking along the beachfront was outlawed. Tow trucks stalked A1A like vultures. Kids were tossed in jail for breaking outdoor drinking laws. Spring breakers came to regard Lauderdale as a town where cops played rough.
The brutalist formula worked. The revamped Greater Fort Lauderdale brand now attracts a richer, more sophisticated, less-apt-to-vomit-in-the-street class of tourist. Life hereabouts became decidedly less crazy.
But I understand the sentiment down in Key West. I have nostalgic moments — pondering the luxurious new hotels that now dominate the Lauderdale beachfront — when I yearn for the kids-gone-wild zaniness, circa 1985. I miss the funk.