Local life marinating in tourism contradictions

A dramatic feature of life in a tourist destination is the shifting of gears on Memorial Day. Secondhome owners and other visitors sweep into town for a hit of their favorite vacation spot, light us up for a few days, and then retreat until the real season (by which time it is hoped we will have generated a little summer weather for them).

In this transitional season, the appearance of a “New Yorker” article on the downside of Airbnb tourism seemed well timed.

According to the article, Barcelona locals are getting tired of being such a successful tourist destination. People turning their properties into Airbnb rentals are making it harder and more expensive for locals to find a place to live. Moreover, they are getting tired of seeing the hordes of tourists everywhere in the streets in carefree vacation mode, enjoying the pleasures of this charming city. (Italian youth getting publically drunk and naked, in an example cited).

Local life is being “hollowed out” to make room for tourists.

I know people who feel that way about our summer visitors (whose number swells our population by a factor of seven or eight). Some locals without regular jobs go so far as to leave town until what they view as the onslaught is over, preferring to be tourists themselves in less popular summer destinations in Maine and elsewhere.

(Others, including this writer, though a bit jealous of the nonstop festive atmosphere and annoyed at crowding, enjoy the increased restaurant, theater and music options. Some of our best friends are summer visitors we get to see mostly in the summer.)

I wouldn’t use the metaphor “hollowed out” for tourism’s effect on Wellfleet. But we have long marinated in tourism’s contradictions.

Like other Cape towns we have for a long time been more widely known as a tourist destination than as a place where people live their lives. But that wasn’t always so. Our town didn’t always close up for most of the year for what we didn’t always consider “off-season. Our self-consciousness of our town as a potential commodity dawned only slowly, as trains and then cars made getting here more convenient, starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps the watershed when we became more tourist destination than not came around 1960, right around the time that the federal government decided we were so nice that we constituted a “national treasure” that should be shared, as a national park, with as many fellow Americans as possible.

It would be interesting to know exactly when the first restaurant was opened with mainly tourists in mind. It could have a plaque affixed noting that.

The fundamental contradiction of tourism is that travelers and vacationers leave the comforts of home for other places not only because of better weather but to experience the other place’s otherness, the life and charm of another place. But what visitors to Barcelona, say, increasingly discover is other tourists and local life that is mostly about tourism. What

One of the most striking features of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a charming Spanish colonial town and popular destination for gringos, is its coloring. Those earth and blood colors which virtually all the buildings are painted seem so much the essence of the place, so very Mexican. Those colors, I was told by a longterm resident, are a result of a chamber of commerce decision a few decades back to paint the traditionally whitewashed town to appeal more to tourists.

Unlike destinations such as Barcelona and San Miguel which have pretty nice weather year round, our tourist season is restricted mainly to the few months when our weather is reliably pleasant. (May, as we and our early visitors have been once again reminded, is only wishfully thought of as o ne of those months,.)

So we should cherish our many months whose weather is such an acquired taste. Think of it as protective, keeping our non-tourism related local life intact for much of the year.


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