A flood tide of tourists

August 19, 1999|By Mike Clary

KEY WEST, Fla. -- Pollution has closed the beaches. Conchs have all but vanished from local waters. And some residents of the Florida Keys are still reeling from last year's Hurricane Georges, which inflicted more than $30 million in damage to parts of the island chain.

Now the problem is tourists: There are too many, some locals say.

With the Overseas Highway jammed with traffic and the streets of Key West clogged with sightseers, residents complain that both they and the fragile environment of this subtropical archipelago are being overrun. Anti-visitor graffiti has sprouted. Spray-painted on the side of an abandoned bus near Key West are the words "Kill the TDC" -- a reference to the Tourist Development Council.

"When you have too many tourists, signals appear, and one is when locals become hostile," said DeeVon Quirolo, who heads an environmental group called Reef Relief. "We have more visitors than the islands can sustain."

"It's like road rage," added Elliot Baron, a restaurant owner. "It's a disturbing phenomenon, and we have to heed it."

Tourism tax

Last year, the TDC spent $11.4 million in bed-tax money to lure more than 3 million visitors to the Keys, a necklace of tiny islands at the end of the Florida peninsula that are linked by a single, two-lane road and 43 bridges. Tourism is a $2-billion-a-year industry in the Keys, and it is virtually the only industry.

But in a series of recent public hearings, many of the Keys' 85,000 residents said they felt swamped by the constant tide of tourists. "People are worried about overcrowding, water quality and advertising beyond our capacity to deliver," said Katherine Dew, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce.

"The Keys have two faces," says Fodor's Florida guidebook. "One, a wilderness of flowering jungles and shimmering seas ... the other, a traffic jam with a view of billboards, shopping centers and trailer courts."

One explanation for the Keys' traffic woes is geography. More than half of all visitors end up in Key West, the largest city in the Keys. But in order to get to Key West, motorists must drive the 125-mile length of the Overseas Highway, and many smaller cities along the way -- Key Largo, Marathon and Islamorada -- often become gridlocked.

Toll booth

To cut down on traffic, tourism officials have tweaked the national advertising pitch, emphasizing eco-tourism and the islands' cultural history in an effort to entice visitors into longer stays, according to TDC chairman Michael Ingram. The TDC also has recommended putting in a toll booth at the gateway to the Keys to discourage day-trippers.

Along with the usual summertime heat and the buzz of tourists on rented motor scooters, life for longtime Key Westers seems more oppressive than usual this year because the city's crumbling sewer system is spewing untreated waste into the ocean. With bacteria counts in the red zone, the state has put up barricades along the beaches and posted signs warning visitors that "use of this swimming area may be hazardous to your health."

The conch used in Key West's signature chowder and fritters, meanwhile, is being flown in from the Bahamas.

No one is seriously proposing that the Keys abandon tourism. "Let's make this clear," Key West Mayor Sheila Mullins said. "We are not anti-tourist. There is frustration more than anger. But this is a small island -- 2 miles by 4 miles -- and we are finally talking about some problems that we have denied in the past."

Mike Clary writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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