Florida got another lesson recently in how spoiling the environment has financial consequences.
Fodors Travel put the Florida Keys on its “no” list for next year. The travel website’s editors didn’t mention anything about Ernest Hemingway look-alike contests or overpriced Rum Runners. No, they said to skip the string of islands that hang off Florida’s south coast to avoid further destruction of nearby coral reefs.
Fodors has put up a big stop sign just as the Keys head into tourist season. Yahoo! ran the news, as did the Daily Mail and The Sun in the United Kingdom, which provides the most overseas visitors to Florida.
The coral needs a break. Coverage declined from 33 percent in 1984 to just 6 percent in 2008 in one sanctuary, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Marine Biology. A few suspected culprits: bleaching due to higher water temperatures killing a beneficial algae and too much fertilizer running from farms into Florida Bay. Sunscreen worn by visitors doesn’t appear to be helping, nor are snorkelers who inadvertently break the coral.
We’ll never know how many travelers alter their plans — or their spending — based on Fodors’ recommendation. Environmentally conscious tourists could still flood into Key West, but skip the snorkeling trip. Realistically, the news is unlikely to have a big financial impact.
The size of the hit isn’t the point. Think of Fodors’ list — which includes 12 other locations from California’s Big Sur to the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia — as the latest warning. Florida relies heavily on tourism. Too much news like this will eventually cut into the numbers. Worse, it will further taint the state’s eroding reputation as a place full of natural wonders. Preserve what’s left of the reputation now or risk irrevocable damage.
In recent years, the state has struggled with toxic algae and Red Tide. Florida’s famous cold water springs aren’t so magnificent anymore thanks to pollution. Invasive pythons have used the Everglades as a smorgasbord, nearly wiping out many smaller critters.
And then there’s development. Florida will need more housing and better roads to accommodate the millions of new residents expected over the next couple of decades. At the same time, the state has to preserve enough open spaces, wilderness, beaches, and coral reefs to keep drawing visitors. Disney and its synthetic experience cannot carry all the weight.
That will take careful planning and tough decisions about where not to build. Elected officials will have to buy more land, especially near quickly expanding cities. Voters gave them the green light in 2014 by passing an amendment to use a slice of existing real estate taxes to conserve environmentally sensitive places and water resources. Now it’s time to act.
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Natural places and state commerce are linked. We might think of them as separate or even in conflict. But we shouldn’t. White sand beaches or undisturbed forests attract tourists, but also companies looking for high quality of life for employees.
When we mess with the environment, we mess with the economy.