The King Tides of Tourism| Guest Column

By Steve Ulvi, Journal contributor.

In the absence of firm controls, tourism is capitalism run amok. This county once funded a comparative study in order to avoid becoming another Nantucket Island. How are we doing?

Soon, the reinvasion of our island will dominate another summer. Wholly unrestrained, except by the maximum carrying capacity of a faltering ferry fleet, the summer hordes and their cars will suck the easy-going spontaneity out of summer. Do we even have a composite “island culture”; a sturdy rudder by which to buck the tides of outside, upscale, faddy interests?

Some wags, grumping about downtown parking, packed bars and eateries, standing in lines and dodging distracted visitors say that our eruption of tourism is like a case of flesh-eating bacteria. Not so. Threatening bacilli can be treated with antibiotics!

Some tourists spend on activities that promote sustainable island ways; the thriving Farmer’s Market, theatre productions, our port, rustic B&B and local celebrations. Then there are the modest revenues from the bed tax, carloads of stingy tips and parking tickets. Few other positives come to mind.

Most leaders and businesses here want to be a top-rated vacation destination. We all pay the price. Increased consumption of limited fresh water, a big uptick in our expensive waste stream, inflammation of ferry woes, bicyclist terrors, strings of mopeds, long lines for good coffee and no place to stay for visiting family or friends. I bet the colorful Friday Harbor of yore, the “Fishing Town with a Drinking Problem” (or the reverse); never stooped to boutique destination status. Of course, local businesses already understaffed and over-stressed must make hay while the sun shines.

Platoons of low- paid, poorly housed, indentured youth, will appear with the spring flowers. Hard-pressed locals will pick up a third job, still without benefits. Help Wanted signs will weather in place due to a severe lack of housing. Food bank lines grow.

How about county and town leadership pushing toward real economic diversification; away from our annual summer gamble? We should pay attention to the new county Sustainable Tourism Management

Plan and a similar, recently initiated town effort. Demand actions, not more hand-wringing and endless planning and repetitive surveys.

Ideas? Incentives for year around businesses and jobs that pay adequately. Accelerated construction of affordable rentals. 1/10 of 1% sales tax for housing. Summertime parking fees downtown. Detached ADUs on farms to grow more food. Attract tech and small manufacturing enterprises. Prune the thorny thicket of counterproductive housing regulations. Decentralize the moseying summer mob with some food carts, maker’s fairs and hosted summer entertainment at the fairgrounds.

Notwithstanding our inertia, inflationary delirium and the real threat of recession, we need to transition to economic resilience. Future challenges are mounting. The best path is to use the problem – like overheated real estate speculation – to fund the solution, like our County Home Fund. Are we determined enough to become the organ-grinder choosing the tunes as opposed to being monkeys dancing wildly for a few coins?