If you are a registered voter in Monroe County, you should have received the County's Tourism Resident Survey in the mail.
The survey provides a unique opportunity for the residents of Monroe County to express their views on the performance of the Tourist Development Council (TDC). Funded by a three percent "bed tax" on tourist accommodations (about $10 million each year), the TDC's mandate is to produce tourism advertising and fund attractions to draw visitors to the Keys.
Supported overwhelmingly by residents when proposed, the TDC was seen as an essential tool for building the Keys economy. But unhappy with the types and numbers of visitors we are attracting and the resulting impacts on our quality of life many people are now demanding that the TDC's focus should be changed, or even that it should be abolished. Some critics maintain that the Keys have been established as a major tourism destination and that the TDC has outlived its usefulness. Indeed, our crowded streets provide ample proof that visitors have discovered the Keys, either through the efforts of the TDC or by other means. This increased volume of tourists has led not only to bigger profits for some tourism-based businesses, but also to a growing feeling that the best interests of our community are being sacrificed in pursuit of those profits.
Increasingly, county residents are questioning the wisdom of inviting more and more visitors to the Keys, and they are asking the TDC to define its goals, But so far, the TDC refuses to say how many tourists will be enough and by extension, how many visitors will be too many. Meanwhile, a lot of people believe that the saturation point has already been reached.
Other critics of the TDC assert that the money spent on advertising is nothing more than corporate welfare, using tax dollars to generate huge profits for the big players in our tourism economy. Indeed, revenues raised through the bed tax are earmarked specifically to increase the profits of tourism-related businesses, an indirect but substantial subsidy. Most businesses have to survive without that kind of tax-funded boost. In most communities, advertising is produced and paid for by individual businesses or by associations like the Chamber of Commerce. Ironically, many of the TDC's most ardent supporters are also the most vocal opponents of taxation and government interference in business affairs except, of course, when that taxation and interference benefits them.
If the TDC is to truly serve the best interests of our community, its mission must be transformed. We must make changes to allow TDC funds to be used for badly needed improvements. Things like speeding up our sewer repairs, fixing our disgraceful sidewalks, eliminating the street flooding that follows every storm, and solving our complex parking and transportation problems will benefit tourists and locals alike.
Keys residents must also be given a bigger say on who we seek to attract as tourists. Do we want to continue our emphasis on cruise ship passengers, day-trippers and other short-stay visitors, or do we want to target people who will stay longer? Do we want to portray Key West primarily as a party town, or do we want to emphasize our unique history, culture and environment? The people of Monroe County should be the ones to decide.
Making these changes won't be easy, but the benefits will be worth it. The County's Tourism Resident Survey is an important first step in this process, providing a means for Keys residents to decide how best to achieve the balance between our tourism-based economy and our quality of life.
The deadline for returning the survey is January 25. If you are a registered voter and you haven't received you survey, call 292-3430 right away to obtain one.