I discovered the government buildings of Vacationland gradually and with some surprise, an appropriate metaphor for the relationship that government has with the idea of Vacationland as a whole. Political Vacationland is almost a misnomer, because the users of Vacationland and its residents are two very different groups. To tourists, the role of government in Vacationland is reduced to the custodial, putting out fires and picking up trash. To residents, Vacationland government must fulfill all the normal functions of small-town representative American government, hosting elections and city council meetings and passing laws and funding parks. The year-round population of Vacationland—that all-important Census-number which determines the number of representatives and state and federal funding—is likely to be low, especially compared to the region’s high-season population. So government here is quiet, unimportant, muffled in terms of representation and funding.
This is both funny and strange: Funny because Vacationland’s political blocks are treated like the small towns they are during winter, but expected to act like the big cities they are during summer. And strange because Vacationland’s local government must continue to function like local government despite the area’s whole-hearted devotion to the industry of tourism. It must provide schools and emergency services to year-round residents, who, unlike tourists, hold permanent political membership in Vacationland.
But in some ways, the economic membership that tourists hold is more important to the continued operation of government than is the residents’ political membership, furthering the odd disconnect between residents and tourists. Tourists are a necessary evil, necessary in so many ways that their economic force can overwhelm even the government itself.
Tourists represent perhaps the ultimate in flighty capital, and vacation destinations are nothing if not fungible. The danger of tourists is more than simply their non-localness, it is that tourism can encourage a race-to-the-bottom mentality among differing municipalities. And it has: witness Atlantic City or parts of the Outer Banks. For every Beach Haven or Ocracoke Island, for every place that cares about preserving its past, about cherishing its differences, there will be a part of Vacationland content to change zoning regulations or set-back requirements to make a quick buck. This is the danger of tourism: Not the remodeling of the economic landscape or the absentee ownership or the lack of political membership, but the allure of money, and how quickly a town will destroy itself in pursuit of that silvery, ephemeral goal.