U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious goals include strengthening the country’s middle class, making the environment a top priority across the government, and building the economy back better after so many livelihoods have been shattered by the coronavirus pandemic.
A revitalized national tourism policy could be a big part of the solution for all three issues. To get an idea how that could work, take a look at Key West, an island off the southern tip of Florida.
On Nov. 3, when the world’s eyes were fixed on the U.S. presidential election, the voters of Key West passed three landmark measures to dramatically reduce cruise ship traffic docking in their small, historic town. A citizen-led movement successfully argued that years of unregulated big-cruise tourism had taken too great a toll on the environment, public health, local businesses, and the town’s very way of life. By margins as large as 81 percent, the island city voted to reduce the number of ships allowed to dock, ban the largest cruise ships outright, and require clean environmental records of the smaller vessels that will still be allowed to visit the island. Voters were opting for an end to frenzied crowds and polluted water, and in favor of something closer to sustainable or ecotourism. Both the locals and their visitors will be better off this way.
But this vote was about far more than one town’s battle against cruise ships. It’s part of a backlash following many years of government neglect during a phase of relentless growth of tourism. It’s become a truism that modern overtourism has not only overrun, disfigured, and polluted places such as Key West, Barcelona, and Venice, but also spoiled destinations and ruined vacations for many travelers as well.
In the era before the pandemic, the $8 trillion global tourism industry was celebrated for underpinning economies around the world, including that of the United States, where the money spent by foreign visitors accounts for 11 percent of export earnings. (Because the money technically comes in from abroad, spending by visitors is booked as exports.) Those numbers mask the furor at the unacknowledged damage tourism was doing to local life, the environment, and visitors’ ability to appreciate the places they were visiting.
It took the pandemic to bring the issue to a head. The tsunami-like spread of the coronavirus brought the global travel industry to an abrupt halt. The world went from too much tourism to no tourism at all. Lockdowns meant that no one moved, neither across international borders nor even across town. Overnight, we all discovered the contradictory powers of the travel and tourism industry.
In real time, Americans saw how travel and tourism is the $1.6-trillion glue holding much of the U.S. economy together. Yet they also saw how it is a formidable environmental threat that pollutes their air and water and contributes to the climate crisis.
Without tourism, seemingly solid industries such as airlines, hotels, restaurants, and department stores tanked—the list is almost endless. Every U.S. state suffered,