“No one comes here anymore, it’s too crowded.”
That is one of the classic statements of Yogi Berra. They are statements that are all at once contradictory and yet make perfect sense. In this case, if a place is crowded you can’t say no one comes there. And yet, the statement makes perfect sense.
And it could possibly be said by some about the Tri-Cities.
Earlier this year, I noticed a rash of articles about something called “overtourism.” The articles were in prominent media, such as CNN, The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Yes, the news media have a tendency to do what is called “pack journalism,” in which a bunch of news outlets all cover the same story after noticing another one do so. Or there is a cultural meme that seems popular so the media jump on to seem relevant, grab eyeballs, and make profit.
But there may be something to this overtourim thing. The terms means as implied, that a certain destination has just become too popular, too crowded with tourists, as to make it less desireable to residents, businesses, even a growing category of other tourists. Granted, over crowded or too crowded can be a subjective term. But the situation reaches critical mass when a significant number of people don’t go to a place because a reputation for being crowded has developed.
The articles I read were about the global locales, from Spain to the Netherlands to Croatia. They included tourist cities across the United States. Incidents of alleged overtourism were reported in traditionally popular locations as well as until recently lesser known destinations. In some cases, the stories were simply about increases in tourist numbers. In other stories, the situation had gotten dangerous, with locals spray painting “tourist go home” on bridges and buildings or otherwise trying to diminish the fun of visitors.
And, as I said, this could be starting to happen in the Tri-Cities.
In late summer, we were with a group of friends from church at an area beach. One young lady who knows French started talking with some tourists who happened to be from France. I was surprised, and asked them how they heard about this area. Turns out they did some research online and found rave reviews about one of our county beaches.
I had mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, how cool is it that world travelers from as far away as the beaches of Normandy would find it compelling to visit one of our local Lake Michigan beaches? On the other hand, the word is out, we’ve been exposed, the very quiet solitude many of us enjoy at the little gem parks we favor may not exist much longer.
There are other impacts of overtourism. Gone are the days when we can drive in and easily find parking at an event in Grand Haven, such as Coast Guard Festival, a summer concert in the waterfront stadium, or an art festival at the marina. Increasingly, it’s necessary to leave much earlier than desirable, park far away and walk, or even bike to avoid traffic and parking hassles. Again, it’s a rush to see things so popular, but it’s coming close to the point where we opt to stay home.
It’s not just tourists. It’s residents, whether seasonal or permanent. The Tri-Cities and Ottawa County have seen significant growth. That sounds good as municipalities measure success in numbers. But there are negative consequences too, such as an increase in housing costs, less parking, a literal drain on water supplies as aquifers lose capacity, and demands on schools and infrastructure. We have to strategically plan when we make a run to the pharmacy or grocery store to avoid traffic.
It’s not just me saying this. I’ve heard fearful comments from many other locals as well. The sentiment is generally that growth is good, but managed growth is better. One municipal official said recently, when asked about the loss of available land to develop and the decrease in parking, that we need to build up not out, implying condo towers and multi-level parking ramps. I wonder about capping or managing growth instead.
We need to consider what we lose as well as what we gain. We can’t only measure our communities in terms of quantitative numbers of tourists, new residents, new condos and homes. We also need to measure the qualitative, such as lower traffic congestion, available parking, low stress, pace of life, and natural uncrowded beauty. We have to remember that our community is popular because it is less crowded.
We may not be as bad as Barcelona or as awful as Amsterdam. But now is the time to do some hard thinking about it. Even as Spring Lake is sprucing up with new businesses in its M-104 corridor, and as Grand Haven continues its expansion on both sides of Washington Street, we need to think of the condition of all the people on the quiet lanes and cul de sacs.
There are worse situations, such as living in a place where no one wants to go. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, people still come here, but it is getting crowded.