Monday, October 18, 2010

Tourism In St. Michaels: Too Much Of A Good Thing?

        I wrote a post a few days back about the tourism situation here in St. Michaels, and wound up getting completely shredded in the Etsy forums.  Lets try this over again, because it needs to be written about, if only for my own sake.  It's on my mind a lot.

       St. Michaels has been a tourist destination for years and years now.  A great deal of its appeal comes from our tiny little town full of historic buildings and cute little shops.  We're located on a narrow strip of land poking out into the Chesapeake Bay,  situated much the way Cape Cod is.  We only have one 2-lane street running in and out of town.  Our normal population is 1100 people.  Over 100,000 people visit the town in a single weekend in the summer months.  Can you imagine?  Our little tiny town can not support that kind of onslaught.  It used to be fine and dandy to have a bunch of tourists here when the weather is nice.  All it meant was more business for the local shops, and a bit more hustle and bustle around town.  In fact, I used to miss tourist season when it was over, because the town felt lonely and empty without them.  But now it has gotten completely out of control.  As St. Michaels has become increasingly popular, more and more people have begun to migrate here for a bit of R&R, and not only does that cause basic logistical problems for us locals, but it is also transforming the town into just another sleazy tourist trap, destroying the main thing that attracted people here in the first place.

       When tourist season is going on, I can't get to the bank or the post office - its just too clogged up with traffic and people milling around.  Its only a 4 mile drive from my house to our main street, but it can take 45 minutes for a task that should take maybe 15 minutes on a normal day.  Merely a bit of an inconvenience at first, but as it has only gotten worse over the years, it is a cause for concern.  In the last 3 years, the whole vibe of this town has changed.  It is starting to feel more like Disneyland than a quiet, historic village near the water.  One of the most charming things about St. Michaels, as a local, or as a tourist, is its authenticity.  Our local laws and codes prevent much development, and as most of the buildings are classified as historic, the town has remained much the same through the centuries and decades that have passed since it was just a ship-building town in the 19th century.  Now we have a bright blue "trolley" car which runs up and down the main street like this is some kind of tacky theme park.  Is it really too much trouble to walk the sidewalk through town when the town proper is less than 1 mile in length?

        It is often said that everything is good in moderation, and the same goes for the amount of tourists we host here.  Imagine going to a restaurant that can only seat 50 people, and finding that 5,000 people have all showed up to dine there at the same time.  The town can't require that you place a reservation in advance, and since people can pull up into our marinas, and some of our more notable restaurants in their boats, we are host to more people than we could ever possibly house, even with our large, multi-story waterfront hotels.  Think "Black Friday" at the mall 24/7 for four or five months out of the year!

       Aside from the irritations and inconveniences experienced by the locals as a result of the sudden boom in tourism, my greater fear is that St. Michaels is losing its very heart and soul, and all of the things that make it special.  This is a tale told around the world in places where tourism has eaten areas alive and reduced them to tacky, miserable tourist traps that look and feel like all the other tacky, miserable tourist traps.  You would think that since there are so many precedents to point to, that St. Michaels would tread more carefully in order to avoid the same thing happening here, but let's face it - it's hard to resist those dollar signs.  Not that businesses were doing poorly when we had an acceptable level of tourism!

       Now from my perspective as a local, something I really want to express to you, my reader, is the sense of joy and relief I feel when the weather turns cold and gray, and the heavy tourist season finally ends, and sanity is restored on the streets of St. Michaels.  St. Michaels usually becomes utterly deserted in the winter months, and though I used to be sad to see the empty streets and the shops closed up for the season, I now live for it!  I literally despise having to leave the house and go into town during tourist season.  Not only do I hate the feeling that I've somehow gotten lost and wound up in Disneyland, or on some motion picture lot, but I don't like the way our visitors treat the town during their stay.  Since they have no roots here, and are only passing through, people tend to behave in rude and inconsiderate ways.  Everything is temporary and disposable to them, including the other people.     Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part the tourists, frankly, suck.

     St. Michaels is probably never going to go back to an economy in which tourism doesn't play a leading role, but this town needs to find a balance, or lose the very things that make this place a wonderful escape for so many people, and a nice place to live and work.  In my opinion, we are getting far too much of a good thing.  

     Some people complained that my previous rant about tourism was just too mean.  But if you reached the point of overload and frustration that I have, you wouldn't feel very kind, welcoming, or patient, either.  And you might have some nasty things on the tip of your tongue after having to wait on over half a million tourists who seem to have left their brains and their manners at home when they came on vacation.  I'm just using this opportunity to express my perspective and my feelings on the subject.  I hope I did a better job this time, than the first time around.


  1. Interesting.
    A town does lose what attracts tourists simply by attracting tourists.

    Those who are financially well off can go elsewhere during the season, I guess.
    The rest of us have to either admit defeat and move or else find a way to live with it.

    If I had more foresight I would have photographed more of the old ways in my city before they tore it all down.

  2. I live somewhere very touristy as well. I've actually been asked before, "Are you a REAL Ashevillian?" I said "No, I live here but I am originally from Indiana. The "real" Ashevillians all have dreadlocks and hooka pipes and a new Mercedes." lol.

  3. I live in Easton, so I know what you speak of!