On the face of it, San Diego seems like a fairly crappy tourist destination. Brochures and the official tourism bureau propaganda paint a portrait of a weekend shuttling between Sea World and the zoo, with maybe a lengthy stop at Seaport Village to "dine, shop, or just get away from it all."
Most tourists end up staying in a tower somewhere near downtown, without a car, desperately stranded. There's not a beach in sight, forcing confused visitors to dodge traffic on Harbor Drive just so they can admire the beer cans floating in San Diego Bay.
If the poor bastards are lucky enough to be near a trolley stop, they will relish a chance to head to the Tijuana border. Otherwise, they are at the whim of mass transit and cab drivers, making a trip to Shelter Island an adventure, which is fairly pathetic.
If they're smart enough to rent a car, they will get a chance to really explore the communities and beaches that make San Diego a tad more interesting than Fresno. But they will also be subjected to the horrors of I-5 and beyond, stuck in some endless traffic nightmare, a true SoCal experience.
As we move into summer, these folks are already visible, trying to make left turns on Garnet and asking directions to Lah-Joll-a. It is the annual migration of the millions seeking a bit of sun and rad culture, San Diego-style.
No matter what, they come, drawn like addicts with a whiff of the good stuff. And we're assured by our fearless leaders that this is a good thing, this invasion of pasty white folk eager to get their picture taken with a Gaslamp Quarter vagrant.
Tourism is now the third largest industry in San Diego (behind the military and manufacturing), moving confidently past "scamming old ladies." More than wireless phone geeks or sailors on a drunken binge, it is tourism that now defines the city and gives it a semblance of character.
Tourism is such a bedrock of the local economy, it was a shock to see the City Council last week once again bitch-slap the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau (ConVis), which is ostensibly the city's beacon to attract these pie-eyed, free-spending visitors. After suspicious City Councilmember Donna Frye called for a review of Con Vis spending activities a few years ago, the city has been consistently cutting its subsidy, displaying open skepticism of how the group blows through money.
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, ol' Con Vis spends about $4 million a year on those real purdy ads you see in travel magazines, next to the spread on New Mexico mud-bath spas. Supposedly, readers will see these ads, which typically picture something akin to Shamu soaring over the downtown skyline, and decide, "Honey, let's not go to the pork parts museum. I'd like to see that there killer whale jump over a building!"
So nobody is going to weep too much at the idea that Con Vis is getting less taxpayer money.
But the discussion barely touched on the larger issue, the fundamental question that almost never gets debated anymore. San Diego is so far gone into the land of souvenir snow globes and historical tours of Mission Valley that no one ever raises his or her hand and says, "Wait a minute. Do we really want to be Disneyland of the South? Is this really the city we want to be?"
Nobody wants to ask those questions because tourism is seen as a cheap economic fix, a way to raise quick cash. Every year, invariably, some shifty-eyed politico proposes solving all the city's financial woes by turning San Diego into a tourist wonderland. We will build hotels and splash rides, and Iowans will flock to our Jack-in-the-Box outlets. And once they are here, we will tax the hell out of them, raising millions for all the good and hearty folks in San Diego.
The politician will smile knowingly, as if he was just working out the math in the limo, and the crowd will nod in agreement, marveling at the logic of it all.
Tourism is presented as a "clean" industry. But that's a crock. Tourists bring congestion and smog and body odor, not to mention a slew of fashion issues. They clog the streets and spread their Budweiser blankets on the beach, giving the city the aura of Coney Island on free-pretzel night.
To accommodate their tastes and needs, the landscape is a sea of cheap hotels and inflatable-raft rental shops. Tourism does create jobs, but they tend to be jobs for T-shirt vendors and busboys, creating an economy based on tips. A good chunk of the cash from those free-spending tourists flows straight out of town to the corporations that own the chain hotels and restaurants. And the hotel tax is a nice idea, until your aunt Martha flies into town and gets jacked up at the counter of the Holiday Inn.
For people who actually live in San Diego, tourism is a real pain in the ass, unless it's been your dream to live in an amusement park.
As another summer begins, and the freeways slow to a crawl and 'zonies toss their beer cans out their car windows, it might be worth pondering this for a moment, to consider that maybe tourism is not such a clean industry after all.
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.