Cambrian: Opinion

Has quest for tourists passed tipping point?

Pedestrians visit shops in Cambria’s West Village in 2016.
Pedestrians visit shops in Cambria’s West Village in 2016.

The balance between tourists and residents in Cambria has apparently shifted in favor of the visitors. It is time for us all to recognize this trend, and begin a civil discussion on whether it would be wise to limit efforts to attract yet more tourists.

Tourism is good for Cambria. It is what in economics is called an “export” industry, bringing economic benefits from the outside. It is similar to a small town that is delighted to have a college located there, because students, parents, faculty and staff spend money in town — dollars that otherwise would not be there, and that are multiplied throughout the community. Tourism is our export industry, and we are lucky to have it — allowing us to support restaurants and other quality retail it would otherwise be difficult to maintain.

Yet what if residents find they are avoiding going to the local restaurants, or even driving into town on weekends, because there are simply too many tourists?

Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

This shift in balance can be traced, at least partially, to the efforts of the Cambria Tourism Board, funded through bed taxes, efforts that have been very successful indeed, and for which their volunteer board should be proud. Discussions with local restaurateurs and motel owners attest to that success.

The other side of that success, however, is the increasing difficulty in finding a parking space in East Village, tourists running stop signs, pedestrians crossing streets seemingly at random, and more trash on the sidewalks.

This phenomenon is hardly limited to us. Venice, Italy, has turned into such a tourist draw that the 60,000 residents are overwhelmed by 25 million tourists every year. The town is even considering imposing a fee to enter the city, making it sound uncomfortably like Disneyland. The mayor of Barcelona is considering a tax on cruise passengers, those who do not spend the night in town in a hotel. The museums in Amsterdam are so crowded that it is almost impossible to stand and quietly reflect on your favorite Rembrandt or Vermeer.

No one dislikes tourists, of course, that is until their sheer numbers begin negatively to affect the very environment that attracted people to move to Cambria in the first place. As with most things, the ideal is moderation, and balance.

You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.

Now the stated objective is to fill up even those now-rare times during the year when there are few or no events, festivals or activities that serve to draw tourists. Perhaps it is time for the Tourism Board to declare victory and reorder its priorities.

Although the purpose of the board is to open opportunities for future visitation, that is only to be done within the constraints of “protecting and maintaining county assets,” with an emphasis on “sustainability and stewardship,” in other words to “deliver smart growth.”

It would be wonderful if, rather than more advertising or events, money could be spent on local infrastructure — such as supporting local health care or even helping with what will be a very expensive new waste water facility. This infrastructure — ambulances and toilets — after all, is used by residents and visitors alike. It is unlikely that the CCSD or the health care district would feel offended by the help in their budgets.

Lacking that, perhaps provision downtown for “safe spaces” for shell-shocked residents would be appropriate: quiet locations in town only open to residents, providing cookies, coloring books, calming music, pillows, blankets or even a video of frolicking puppies.

OK, perhaps not, but more seriously, a conversation can certainly commence. There is no reason it cannot be the kind of civil, collaborative conversation that happens frequently in college towns when some of the less salutary aspects of undergraduate life begin to impinge on town-gown relations. It would be a discussion on how best to achieve balance, and at least for the time being, limit further efforts to attract even more tourists to Cambria.

Stephen Overturf of Cambria is an emeritus professor of economics.