The Key West Mystique

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Key West tourists: The island’s love-hate affair

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

02/08/2013

Key West’s love-hate affair with its tourists

A goodly portion of Key West’s 2.6 million tourists stops to primp in my office window on Whitehead Street. They don’t realize the mirror effect for them means they’re just inches from my to-them-invisible desk.

I learn about their families, listen to their enthusiastic reviews of architecture, the bars and the Hemingway House. I watch as they dig out a map or smartphone to figure out where they are, and I help with directions to the beach and how to use the parking meters.

Gaad, I love those tourists.

Key West has a love-hate affair with the tourists whose pocketbooks and credit cards pay the bills for the 25,000 or so permanent residents. Without the millions of dollars that flow annually into city coffers from cruise ships, day trippers and overnight visitors, Key West would be back to ramshackle houses and an exclusive enclave or two of mansions.

And, there’s the rub.

For lack of anything better, I’ll call them the “oh-so-awares.” Made up of long timers and newcomers, they’re a motley assortment of political, environmental and monied folks who’d prefer Key West were a destination exclusively for those with the wherewithal to afford second homes, high-end finishes and $50,000-per-canvas painting,

Heaven forbid our visitors only fork over for a T-shirt, a burger in paradise and a tour around the island on the Conch Train.
“Cruise ship passenger” is fighting words in this town. The oh-so-awares consider the 800,000 cruise ship visitors little more than uncultured, cheap rubes.

I wonder occasionally why the oh-so-awares don’t drown when they walk in the rain.

I’ll concede tourists — even those with gold card pedigrees — place an appalling demand on the island’s environment and infrastructure. I’ll concede automobile traffic and greenhouse gasses are out of control.

And, I’ll throw my support behind climate action plans, sustainability, clean-up efforts and plans to find a balance between tourism’s strain on the island and the island’s economic survival.

But, I won’t cease my love affair with those tourists who stop to primp in my office window. I used to be one of them.

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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