Earlier this year, I visited Florence - generally regarded as one for the most beautiful cities in the world - for the third time since 1965. Its hotels, restaurants and stores are packed with tourists - 14 million of them. Its metropolitan area has a population of 1.4 million but all tourists descend only on its historic core where 380,000 make it their home.
One would think that with all its revenue, the city would be thriving, but the lawns and landscaping of the Boboli Gardens of the Pitti Palace ($16 entry fee) are brown, the giant 150-year old cypresses in the Santa Maria Novella court yard are dying because, though the Arno river runs through it, Florence is running out of water. Many of its narrow streets smell of raw sewage, indicating that its sewer treatment capacity has exceeded its limits. And the ability of its roads to carry its traffic was compromised decades ago.
Obviously, the massive revenue created by tourism is not enough to maintain its magnificent buildings and monuments, its slowly decaying sandstone columns, widow surrounds and railings of its historic bridges. Yet these are the assets that make Florence the attractive city that it is. The fiscal equation, while sufficient for providing immediately needed services to 10 times the people who live there, falls short in the long term capital costs they create.
Florence is not alone. The same fate is evident in all of the most attractive places in Europe including Ibiza - part of the Balearic islands - which professor Mendlinger had touted as one of the few successful models of a tourist economy at last April's Napa Valley forum on the tourist economy. But as Spain's minister of tourism recently reported, Ibiza has reached the limit of a variety of resources, including water.
If you ask the people who live in Florence, Ibiza, Santorini or Bruge whether they like it, they answer: "No, but this is where we make our living"!
Switching to the Napa Valley; if we are not there yet, we are awfully close. The percentage of tourist revenue the cities and county receive is somewhat in the order of a paltry 10 percent. All additional costs to maintain and expand the infrastructure its 3.5 million visitors require (25 per resident), in roads, sewer capacity, water treatment, administration, police, emergency services, cleanup, trash disposal etc. fall on the general population in the form of taxes, bonds and never ending funding measures. Despite the $50 million in Transit Occupancy Taxes, and more in sales taxes, we keep falling behind.
Calistoga and St. Helena are under orders to update their sewer plants, water is diverted from streams having to be defended in lawsuits, water and sewer rates are getting higher and everyone is aware of the sad condition of our roads, sidewalks and some 80 intersections at service level C or worse.
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The reality is that the major winners of the tourist economy are the very few international corporations who have discovered the Napa Valley golden goose with their multi-million-dollar hotels and resorts but take their profits elsewhere, leaving behind the associated costs of services, the staggering long-term costs of infrastructure maintenance and expansion, the lowest paying jobs ($22,000 median for a single person) which create commuters and subsidized services - including grants for affordable housing - all spread among the wider population.
This is an unfair equation that satisfies mostly self-created immediate needs and ignores long-term costs. It is an ingenious cost-shifting vortex impossible to escape from.
There is no question that tourism is highly beneficial on many levels up to a certain point, but over-reliance on it has devastating fiscal, environmental and social impacts.
Because reliance on a tourism-based economy can never be scaled back until it reaches the point of collapse, I once again urge the county and the cities to commission a joint study before we get there.