There’s nothing like a shared Instagram pix or a Facebook album to entice visitors to Key West. All that sand, sunny blue skies and big puffy clouds as background for sitting in a kayak in the green, towering mangroves puts our tiny island on a lot of folks’ bucket lists.
Heck, even I am seduced.
I’ve said for years that one of the joys of living in Key West is that I live in that rare place others dream of visiting. When the Conch Train used to snake past my house half a dozen times a day, I’d stand out front, wave and wish them happy vacationing. They’d laugh and not a few would shout back “You’re so lucky to live here.” I’d nod and wonder if they could smell the summer’s unwrapped fish remains rotting next to the spoiled milk in the green trash can.
The Conch Train’s leisurely roll down my block ended a few years ago, replaced by e-bikes going the wrong way with loud riders narrating their GoPro videos and barely looking up from the screens to see the neighborhood. They’ll go back to their vacation rental or hotel, edit that video to remove trash cans, cars, utility lines and such, leaving a slick, TikTok-ready post that’s as misleading as it is lovely.
Real Key West | Destination tourism
That’s the way of destination tourism. Always has been. I remember visiting the Dominican Republic decades ago, lured there by marketing pamphlets that showed me the spectacular resort and its endless, empty, jewel-toned water and beaches. They didn’t share the equally endless miles of dirt-poor, subsistence-level shacks that lined the barely passable roads that ended in a gated resort. My naivete shames me.
Key West has pretty much always been a siren call for tourists. But over the past three decades, we’ve inexorably moved away from being a working town that welcomed visitors to a bucket-list visitor destination that’s undermining the working town that supports those visitors.
The pace of that shift escalated in 2020, when Key West was among the very few tropical destinations open for those champing at the bit for an escape from Covid-19 lockdowns. They came by the tens of thousands, demanding, entitled and determined to push the limits of both commonsense and politeness among strangers. Their richer developer cousins bought up housing stock and turned former homes and residential rentals into vacation rentals and second (or third) homes.
They didn’t come back this summer of 2023. There has been both a sigh of relief and a shared anxiety attack over diminished revenue streams to pay the bills. Home prices, which still tickle the underside of obscene, have dipped, though they’ll likely never be affordable except to the folks who pay cash for a $3 million house.
But, I digress. Back to my point: It annoys me to no end when I hear visitors complain about our awful beaches; or having to make reservations months in advance; or stand in line for a hour to get into the Hemingway Home; or fight for a free parking space only to find out it’s marked “residential” and park anyway; or whine over how expensive things are and how it’s not like that where they came from.
Are they as naive as I was over the Dominican Republic? Probably. Surely they did some homework before booking a Key West vacation? Probably not.
So they get here and are shocked, shocked, I tell you, that there’s trash in the streets and mold growing down the walls of their expensive rental. That it’s hotter than Hades with a steam bath thrown in. That they’re not going to walk up and buy a ticket to the Dry Tortugas since the ferry is booked months in advance. That getting to Smathers Beach means navigating a construction zone. That Uber drivers are often from Miami and have no clue how to get around town. And, that locals, even their so-called favorite bartenders, aren’t 100 percent grateful for the two buck tip.
If I’m having a good day, I’ll still wave at the Conch Train folks and wish them a happy vacation. They no longer see me or fancy that they, too, might live here — because they’re in the smartphone hunch on the hunt for their next post.