Visitor letter

Are visitors welcome in Key West? We might need to tweak the message

Key West residents have a love-hate affair with the visitors whose pocketbooks fund much of what gets spent on the island. Without visitors and all the trappings of a vacation destination city, Key West’s economy staggers to a halt. With too many, Key West residents feel our sense of hometown slipping sideways. So, are visitors […] (SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE)

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She is a legacy newspaper journalist. Her columns, editorials and essays have been published nationally for more than 40 years. She and her husband a park ranger at Fort Zach live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

07/21/2021

Key West residents have a love-hate affair with the visitors whose pocketbooks fund much of what gets spent on the island. Without visitors and all the trappings of a vacation destination city, Key West’s economy staggers to a halt. With too many, Key West residents feel our sense of hometown slipping sideways.

So, are visitors welcome in Key West? We might need to re-think the message we are sending. Unintended though it might have been, our grousing over the past couple years on social media about visitors has discouraged just the kind of visitor we want. This is part of a longer note I got from Bob H. after last week’s column on cruise ships:

I guess my wife and I are those horrible visitors Key West wants to discourage. We have been coming to Key West since 2001. We like Key West because it is safe, it is quirky, we love to walk the streets and see all the architecture, etc. Truman Annex is pretty and one can ride bikes almost anywhere. … Our dog loves to walk in Key West. … We do not like the scooters; we do not like the t-shirt shops; we do not like the crowded snow-bird season (yes we have been to Key West at times other than October); we do not like the hawkers on Duval; we do not like obnoxious visitors (regardless of whether they arrive by boat or car); and we do not like pretentious millionaires who gather up all the real estate and then try to keep others from enjoying Key West. … It seems, looking at this from afar, both sides want it totally their way. … Maybe if the two sides could get together and seek some common ground this problem would be mitigated. … Regardless, I fear the millionaires are going to price Key West out of the reach of middle class. I wish this was not the direction things are heading.

Bob and his wife clearly understand the island’s culture, its wonderful quality of life and the challenges it faces. What concerns me is that the frustrations inherent in those challenges are sending a troubling message to island visitors. That will not bode well for our future.

We need a different message

We need a different message, one that recognizes the imperatives of our challenges minus the sometimes hyperbolic social media rhetoric:

Dear visitor:

I get up each morning with a grateful prayer. I live in Key West. I believe there really is such a thing as the Key West state of mind. I believe that whether you were born here, first met Key West in 1970 or just a few weeks ago, those who love the island will never stray far. Preserving and enhancing that Key West mystique sustains my island home forever — for those who live here and for those who visit.

The past five years have been tough, haven’t they? Seems like much of what I’ve always known has gone awry. Divisive politics. Domestic terrorism. Covid-19. Egads, an insurrection. Add in Hurricane Irma. Is it any wonder I’m stressed? Frustrated? Waxing mean-spirited on social media? Hey, I need a vacation.

Ah, there’s the rub. Key West visitors are on vacation. Key West residents aren’t. We’re holding things together, paying bills, getting the kids to school. A lot of workers left the island after Irma and during Covid. We are short-staffed. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me; after all, I get to live here. I apologize for being grumpy.

I apologize, too, for too often stereotyping our visitors into the lowest common denominator jerks. Most of our visitors, even now when the island is packed cheek-by-jowl, are here in search of their own piece of this magical place.

Since it is a two-way street, here’s what Key West needs from its visitors:

  • A pro-active willingness to protect our fragile island. If you don’t, our environment dies. There will be no more tropical vacations.
  • An understanding that One Human Family does not mean jerks are welcome. They’re not. Ever.
  • The knowledge that we are not Disney World. We are a working city of 25,000 residents who are willing to share our hometown with you. Please treat our town and us with the same respect you’d treat your neighbors back home.

Welcome to Key West.

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