But after spending my working lifetime as a business reporter I also know one thing for certain. Tourism, as an economic activity, is a mug’s game.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the business of being a gracious host. There just aren’t many high-paying jobs in it. Most jobs in tourism are things like taking tickets, waiting tables, cleaning hotel rooms, maybe acting as a docent or guide. These are not jobs that can feed a family in modern America.
Tourism is the original “gig economy,” a game rigged by the undeserving rich aimed at creating a poor, and complacent lower class by the mid-21st century in place of the middle class that built America in the mid-20th century.
The world is about to fall off a demographic cliff. As people enter the “global middle class” – a roof, food, and hope for the children – fecundity drops dramatically. Already birth rates are below replacement in much of the world, in Japan, in China, and in Europe especially. Birth rates are also dropping in the Global South, so even though we now face an enormous problem of hungry people crossing borders anxious for any chance to eat, we are soon going to find a lot of low-income jobs going begging. It won’t happen all at once. It will be a slow-moving process, as demography is. But it’s as certain as the Sun coming up tomorrow.
Against that background, we continue to have a problem best addressed by politics. For all the conservatives screaming about the glories of “the market,” and demanding that “government” keep its “hands off” the “free enterprise system,” the fact is that government is an essential element in that system, without which capitalism cannot function. And the best governments are those that, like capitalism itself, are most flexible, adaptable, and capable of change – democratic governments.
This is why, despite the screaming about how China is about to take over global economic leadership and plunge us into an era where freedom is just another thing for nothing left to lose, America is going to remain on top. Our system can change, because our economy is flexible, and our politics is flexible. Put enough popular pressure on something and any wall will crumble. If the struggle over gay marriage and health care reform doesn’t teach you that, it has taught you nothing.
But let’s get back to tourism. Tourism is a great tool for financial and political elites. It makes people feel better about where they live. It creates “jobs,” and politicians care more about jobs than they do about wages. It gets people from schools into the workforce quickly. It creates an environment in which people are deathly afraid to rock the political boat because it would be “bad for the economy.” In other words, it retards change, putting the past under glass, and letting elites deal with the future for themselves.
Like the headline says, it’s a mug’s game. It’s also, generally, a money-loser. My own hometown of Atlanta will attest to that. The city has opened a number of “popular” tourist attractions downtown in the last several years – the Georgia Aquarium, the College Football Hall of Fame, The World of Coca-Cola, and The Civil Rights Museum – yet they don’t make any money.
The main reason people come here, the main reason they will make a special effort and fly halfway around the world to visit my home town – is to stand in front of a very ordinary home, on a very ordinary street, a mile from downtown. It’s the two-story home where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up. Whenever I ride my bike downtown, that’s where I find the international visitors. They walk there in silence, along Auburn Avenue. They pause at the grave site, take pictures at the reflecting pool, but spend most of their time, and their thought, just looking at the house, taking it in, and marveling how so much that is special came from such an ordinary place.
The King Home gives hope. If all that can start from such a simple place, in an era marked by stark prejudice, what can come from the place I live, and the people around me?
The point is that true tourist attractions are organic. They can’t be created. Yeah, you can spend millions and get thousands of internal tourists to slurp Coca-Cola, look at whales, or imagine themselves as pre-concussion football heroes, but what really makes a place special, and worth visiting, lies in the feelings it can evoke in people. Those feelings have no economic value, they can’t be manufactured, and they don’t create “jobs.”
Most American “tourist destinations” are like Atlanta. They’re something to do, somewhere to go, attracting mainly other Americans. Foreigners mainly know America from three places – New York City, Hawaii, and southern California. None was created with tourists in mind. None, save perhaps Hawaii, is really “dependent” upon tourist dollars. They’re nice extras.
Make yourself truly dependent on tourist dollars and that is what your economy is, dependent. The salaries for which the vast majority of workers in the tourist trade work will not grow your economy, or your standard of living.
Politicians know this, but they keep pushing the lie anyway, because it’s a comfortable story to tell. They run ads in other states, telling how wonderful their state is, and their own citizens feel better. People who might otherwise turn to crime become low-skill, low-wage workers, complacent and ready to serve the needs of the wealthy because it’s all they know. Meanwhile the very-rich people who create the “tourist attraction” make off with the peoples’ money.
Take Liberty Global for example. This is a Colorado-based company with a market cap near $14 billion, the personal piggy bank of billionaire John Malone. Liberty managed to score a half-billion dollars off Georgia taxpayers a few years ago, by simply moving the Atlanta Braves from the center of the city to suburban Cobb County, claiming it would create jobs.
Malone took advantage of Cobb County’s racism and scammed those crackers good. He also scammed the state, meaning he scammed me. He not only got a taxpayer paid-for stadium, but dozens of acres of land for their own development, and a rebuilt interchange at I-75 and I-285 that wouldn’t have to be rebuilt except for the fact that you can’t get to the new stadium using public transit – you have to use a car. And you know how many jobs all this will create, when it’s done in two years? Maybe a few hundred. Would any of them not exist except for this new stadium? No.
The excuse of the crackers was that the old stadium was in a poor neighborhood, while the new stadium would be closer to the “middle class” customers. Guess what has happened to land values near the old stadium in the last decade? They’ve gone up. What has happened to the land value near the new stadium? It’s gone down. Frankly, except for the cost of the interchange, and the bother the construction will cause, the crackers can have it.
These kinds of scams are happening all the time, all over the country. They’re how the ultra-rich take advantage of the gullible. You can’t create tourism where it doesn’t exist. You can get some visitors, and some low-wage, low-class jobs, but you can’t create economic growth with tourism, because it depends ultimately on taking income that already exists, from people in other places.
The next time some official tells you that they’re going to turn your town into a tourist attraction, ask how much it costs and what you’re going to get out of it. Chances are, if you’re lucky, it’s the chance to make $10/hour dressed up in a Goofy costume. And if that doesn’t make you mad on this July 4 weekend, nothing will.