A daily bulletin of news & opinion

15 May 2012

Does anyone really like being called a tourist? A traveller, a visitor or even a foreigner perhaps but never a tourist.

Being a tourist says that someone has overcharged you for that t-shirt or souvenir you’ve brought home with you, that locals barge past you as you take a picture of your friend making a funny face next to a mediocre landmark, that aside from the tourist cash you spend and increased traffic you make, you added nothing to the place you visited.

Now, I’m not saying that tourism isn’t big business. Last year the value of tourism in the US alone was $1.2trn (€933bn) or a huge 2.7 per cent of the country’s entire GDP. But that doesn’t mean that holiday destinations shouldn’t do more to make their visitors feel less like tourists and more like locals.

Last weekend I was in Santa Fe. The small New Mexican city is the state capital and one of the oldest centres in the US. But its existence today is in large part due to tourism of one kind or another.

Located in the middle of the desert, with only a small, seasonal river for water, Santa Fe was supposed to be a stop on an important regional railroad built during the late 19th century. When the tracks were diverted to a smaller town to the south, bypassed Santa Fe fell into decline. Perhaps in one of the earliest examples of cultivated cultural tourism in the US, the city’s leaders decided to impose strict building laws in order to preserve Santa Fe’s unique architectural heritage and promote it as a destination for travellers.

Ever since, its Adobe architecture, dry climate and desert landscape have not only attracted visitors but also new residents. And the large number of artists and writers who migrated here have made Santa Fe a cultural hotspot, with arts and culture now serving as the second-largest employer in town after the local government. Brimming with galleries, good restaurants and impressive housing stock, the city has also become a refuge for some of America’s most tasteful retirees, favouring desert hikes and pueblo revival homes over Florida palms and beachside condos.

However, walking through Santa Fe’s central plaza on Saturday, I wondered how much of the city was designed to please its residents. Rather than being furnished with sidewalk cafés and local meeting places that would suit the plaza’s European feel, the space was dotted with souvenir stalls and a band blaring quite terrifying music to an equally terrified crowd. And although the city is historic and compact, there are few tree-lined walkways that take advantage of its unique scale. Residents worry that younger generations will leave as there are far more galleries selling generic artwork to gawking tourists than there are late night bars and restaurants for locals.

Yes the city needs these tourist dollars for its survival but surely improving the community feel would have a knock-on effect for tourism. I would guess that many people visiting Santa Fe don’t want to feel like tourists. They’re there to feel part of the city’s renowned cultural scene rather than be sold nonspecific, resort art and crafts. They want to experience an old and walkable city — something that’s rare in America — and mix with the locals, perhaps over some wine at a café. Having been designed around attracting tourists to combat its declining population, the city today should tone down the tourist tack in order to keep its important residential base. In doing so, Santa Fe might also draw visitors who will invest more in the city than just the cost of a souvenir t-shirt or two.


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