We here in Florida love our tourists.
We at least love the billions and billions of tourist dollars that pour in to our state’s economy when millions of out-of-towners flock here every year for our beaches, Mickey and more.
Still, a rather harsh bumper sticker made the rounds a few years back: “Happiness is 100,000 Canadians heading home with a New Yorker under each arm,” it said. And, ouch.
The sentiment speaks for the sometimes strained relationship the Sunshine State can have with its perennial visitors — some who are gracious guests, others we wish would learn to love it like we do. And right now people seem particularly eager to come here post-coronavirus confinement, considering the crowds we saw Memorial Day weekend.
So here’s a few thoughts from a native on how visitors might get more out of coming here, and locals might find more reasons to be glad they did.
Besides their wallets.
Please. We beg of you. Do not feed the gulls.
Or let little kids chase them, either.
We’re not trying to spoil that vacation photo op. But feeding and chasing can make an unpleasant experience for fellow beachgoers who find themselves strafed and potentially pooped upon. Gulls used to humans doling out food can get aggressive about stealing your Cheetos even when you’re not the one doing the feeding. I can’t say it strongly enough: Natives tend to hate it when you get a gull frenzy going.
More important, it’s not good for them.
Chasing birds makes them use up energy they need when they may have just eaten, mated or flown for miles. “When those birds hit the ground, they’re looking to rest,” says Suzi Fox, executive director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring in Manatee County. “It’s so important to their future that you don’t do that.”
And please don’t feed them people food, not even that innocent-seeming bread. Birds fill up on it instead of what they’re naturally supposed to eat. Bread and crackers are “just a source of empty calories that don’t deliver the nutrients these animals need to stay healthy,” says audubon.org.
That’s not the ocean, and other fun facts.
Sometimes an out-of-towner will refer to that gorgeous blue-green body of water along our sugar-sand shores as “the ocean.” Maybe they mean it generically, interchangeable with “water,” as in, “I can’t wait to ride this inflatable pink flamingo in the (blank.)”
In fact, that is the Gulf of Mexico, or “the gulf.” The ocean is the Atlantic clear on the other side of the state along the opposite coast of Florida.
(And yes, since you ask, we do believe our gulf beaches are superior to those rough-and-tumble ocean ones. As it’s been said on this side of the state: Real beaches have sunsets.)
If this ocean/gulf business sounds persnickety, imagine someone referring to New York City and Newark as more or less the same place.
If you’re new to the area and touring our towns, Tampa’s Latin Quarter, Ybor City, is ee-bore, never why-bore. Lutz just north of Tampa rhymes with fruits, not nuts.
Then there are visitors who inexplicably refer to St. Pete in the plural, “St Petes,” or maybe it’s the possessive, “St. Pete’s,” — the subject of some discussion on Tripadvisor. Only do this if you want people to know you’re not from here and you don’t really care what it’s called.
Ask. Find out. Try something new.
By now you know about our manatees and sea turtles. Maybe you’ve seen osprey dive-bombing for dinner as you drive across our causeways.
In Ybor City, you might have picked up on Tampa’s Spanish, Cuban and Italian roots and wondered about those cool old cigar factories. Maybe kayaking through tunnels of mangroves at St. Pete’s Weedon Island sounds like an adventure beyond sweating it out at the theme parks or broiling yourself pink on the beach.
Do it. Find out. Get invested. There’s a million google-able resources online — websites, talks, tours, blogs — for just about anything that catches your eye.
“Don’t be afraid to explore,” says Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “I know history can be a little bit boring for some people, but it can also be fascinating.” Oh, and did I mention Tampa’s mob past?
And don’t be afraid to ask a local, even if it’s just where to get the best mojito. Because we know.
Do it for the turtles.
When it comes to beach etiquette, you already know not to plop your blanket too close the next one, light up a cigarette and crank your tunes.
This should go without saying, but please take your trash. Heck, act like a native and take other people’s trash. Karma will kiss you for it. What you shouldn’t take is pretty much anything else. Remember sand dollars are often alive, and it breaks a native’s heart to see people gather them by the dozens.
Also, remember the turtles.
Mom sea turtles nest and lay their eggs on our beaches at night through October. We take in beach chairs, tents and umbrellas at day’s end so turtles don’t get tangled up. (They have, and it’s not pretty.) Get the kids to knock down sandcastles, which can be as much fun as building them.
Those deep holes beachgoers (inexplicably) dig can trap a turtle who’s just trying to get through the hard work of nesting and getting back to sea. Last year, turtle patrol volunteers had to rescue a 300-pound loggerhead who fell into one of those holes on Anna Maria Island. She was pregnant and tender, probably carrying 40 pounds of eggs. Fill in those holes before you go.
One more for nighttime beach visitors: Light from cell phones or flashlights can disorient turtle hatchlings and send them in the wrong direction. It can discourage mothers from laying their eggs.
“They’re pregnant, and people are following them trying to photograph them,” said Fox, the turtle watch director. Don’t be that guy.
“If you see wildlife, sit your butt on the ground and have a good time just watching. Put down your cell phone and take it in with your eyes and your heart,” Fox says. “Take it in quietly and enjoy the moment.”
Tip well and be your nicest self.
The pandemic took a wicked toll on the hospitality industry. “It’s been a traumatic year,” says Ashley Chambers, press secretary for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. So if you can afford it, she suggests, “tip more than you normally would.”
(You’re on vacation, so it’s not real money anyway.)
And remember the industry is struggling with a worker shortage. “So when you visit, relax, enjoy that cocktail before you’re seated,” says s Visit St. Pete/Clearwater’s vice president of digital and communications Leroy Bridges. “Be patient and kind ... especially right now.
I once overheard a visitor demanding that a Publix cashier tell him when the rain that was ruining his vacation would stop. Don’t be that guy, either.
Shop and ride local. Come when it’s not so crazy
Locals get skilled at avoiding peak times and annoying traffic. Instead of braving sunset throngs, for instance, “maybe try sunrise,” suggests Bridges.
“For me as a local, I tell my family to come visit in the fall,” he says. “The rates are better, the weather is just as good, the water is warm and there’s fewer crowds.”
Yes, we are the birthplace of Outback and Hooters. But we’ve got plenty of interesting local restaurants, breweries, shops and other haunts of the non-chain variety to explore.
And while Tampa Bay is not exactly on the cutting edge of public transportation, some hyper-local options can help you ditch the car. Check out city rental bikes and scooters, local trolleys and Tampa’s historic streetcar.
This one’s so old we natives remember our grandparents saying it: Please don’t tell us how much better your pizza, bagels, tacos, stores, traffic, politics and life in general are back home. It’s like staying in someone’s house and complaining about the thread count.
Remember, a lot of Floridians aren’t multi-generationals from citrus and cattle farming, just people who visited, fell in love and found a way to stay. And then got particular about how visitors treat the place.