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The economic landscape of Vacationland, captured in its businesses and industries, reveals both how its users make economic decisions and what economic decisions are possible. No surprise here: Vacationland businesses tilt heavily towards offering what you need for a vacation, both primary vacation gear (swim suits, goggles, pool toys, sunscreen, etc.) and secondary vacation gear (disposable cameras, souvenirs, etc.). The scaling-up of the tourism industry thus leaves an economic footprint. The seasonal nature of Vacationland also leaves its mark on the economic landscape: During the off-season, many businesses close down completely. Others are open only on weekends. The strength of a given business’s ties to the tourist economy is revealed by what times of day or year the business is closed

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Staple businesses, like grocery stores, banks, or pharmacies, are open year-round. This type of business may alter its hours, or change what merchandise it carries for the high and low seasons. The merchandise change-over is likely to be a more extreme restocking than the usual summer-winter sunscreen-versus-eggnog restocking that takes place elsewhere, because the businesses of Vacationland must cater to both Locals and Tourists, to different demographics in different seasons. Locals live in Vacationland year-round, and their material needs are no different than the average American citizen. Tourists visit Vacationland for short stretches. Depending on their hometown or socioeconomic standing, they may bring with them more cosmopolitan tastes (better wine, organic meat, whatever) but, more importantly, tourists bring the idea that they are on vacation. This idea itself introduces economic variations.

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Food becomes an element of self-identity, of the auto-mythmaking of a place, in the way that Vermont maple syrup is produced in vast industrial vats, but advertised as dripping slowly out of maple trees into quaint wooden buckets. Vacation food and real food are two different things, so different, in fact, that locals may never eat what tourists do. (I saw this in New Orleans, which doesn’t fit the definition of a Vacationland—not seasonal, too many people live there—but which has the same sort of deeply-rooted insider/outsider ideas that underpin Vacationland. The tourists ate gumbo or Zatarain’s red beans and rice. The locals ate Roly Poly wraps and went to Starbucks.) Vacation-foods may be further informed by place instead of availability—we expect to eat seafood at the seashore, but why is the New Jersey seafood stand shown above selling lobster from Maine? The idea of the place can overwhelm its reality; tourist expectations guide and form a tourist world, a world balanced between reality and the myth of vacation. Tourists are in this world, but not of it; locals are of this world, but not in it.

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Certain foods become more acceptable in Vacationland; vacation becomes a social excuse for indulgence. And not just when it comes to eating: Luxury purchases themselves become a type of souvenir, a way to internalize the vacation experience. Purchase a part of the place, and carry it with you—hence the jewelry stores, art galleries, and antique shops that proliferate in certain segments of Vacationland. Tourists are paying a premium for these luxury goods, paying for the privilege of purchasing it while they are on vacation. Vacation is something you buy over and over again

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Real estate in Vacationland is huge. The tourist industry is built on medium-to-long term vacation rentals, and real estate agencies typically handle the cleaning and maintenance of rental units for absentee owners (which is to say, most owners in Vacationland). Brokers show properties to potential renters, filtered by number of bedrooms, beach proximity, and price range, much as they would to potential buyers. Vacationeers may rent the same property year after year and know that two-week period of Vacationland and only that two-week period. But they know it and know it intimately. Vacationland builds unintentional spatial products that are materially ephemeral but codified in dates and travel times, rental agreements and damage-deposit checks.

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Another set of businesses unique to Vacationland is the off-season industry, an entire group of services and products meant to help you turn things on and off. These are the guys who will shrink-wrap your boat, drain your pool, flush your pipes. In early June, they’ll paint your trim; in late September, they’ll install your storm windows. The real estate industry is a big client: If absentee owners don’t want to vacuum their rugs between renters, you can bet they’d also rather have someone else handle opening and closing their home for the season. Quoth the New York Times, on the high/low season divide in the Hamptons:

The summer infestation is greeted with ambivalence (great for the bottom line, bad for the blood pressure) endured with fortitude and a fixed smile, and forgotten with haste. “It’s a little bit of a clash of cultures,” observed Mary Croghan, an owner of East Hampton Business Services. “In the summer I have 18 people double-parked, some with their motors running, and standing in front of me punching their BlackBerrys. A lot of their urgency, let’s face it, is artificial. These people haven’t drawn a breath to the bottom of their diaphragm in a decade.” Some of those businesses have to adjust their offerings (more lobster salad), their supplies (more refrigerators), their staff (more bodies) and their hours (start earlier, end later) to prepare for the summer population. All of them have to adjust their attitudes and coping strategies.

The article from which this excerpt is taken is the best study of local attitudes towards seasonal residents I have ever found. It perfectly captures the high/low, tourist/local divide. Another Times article (from 1995!) makes many of the same points, and notes that the 50-day summer influx of seasonal residents “generates between 60 and 70 percent of the year’s economic activity.

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Vacationland is not an idle or frivolous place, and the leisure it packages is sold at a price. This is an economy that leaves homes and businesses empty for most of the year. This is an economy that remodels its host, and the goods and services it offers, twice every year. This is an economy as serious as any other: Lopsided and funny-looking though it may be, this is what makes money. The strength of these economic forces varies up and down Vacationland, with affluence and climate, and a summer in the Hamptons will be different from one at the Jersey Shore which will be different still from one in the Florida panhandle. But regardless of where you happen to be vacationing, you are still on vacation.

These economic forces are easy to see in the high season, but they come into starker relief during the low season, when the streets and parking lots are empty, the traffic lights blink yellow, and almost every store and house is dark. 

Up next: The governmental buildings of Vacationland.

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