South County’s dramatic seasonal switchover happens this weekend.
Parking lots from Wickford to Westerly, vacant all winter, will fill with nicer-than-average cars bearing out-of-state plates. Those same cars will help turn otherwise rural routes 1 and 4 into a twice-a-day traffic jam. Every errand will take twice as long. All of a sudden it costs money to go to the best beaches. And your dog is no longer welcome.
For the next 90 days or so, we have to share our coastal paradise with the rest of the world. It’s really a tiny price to pay to get to live in one of the most beautiful corners of the country. “You should see it in September,” a Rhode Islander will inevitably say to someone visiting for a week in July.
With about a fifth of the state’s population, South County is essentially Rhode Island’s company town. The beaches are the Ocean State’s factory. And our chief export is an amazingly healthy and renewable resource: rest, relaxation, good times and memories.
Tourism is Rhode Island’s second biggest industry. It contributes billions annually to the economy and is responsible for almost 10 percent of total employment. It plays to our natural strengths and is a historically strong driver of growth here.
After the Ocean State unsuccessfully tried to boost business by cutting taxes and giving money to a baseball player to develop a video game, Democrats running for governor are beginning to understand tourism’s importance here. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo both recently released plans to reinvigorate the vacation sector.
“A progressive government understands that our tourism industry is more than an amenity – it is crucial to economic development and to Rhode Island’s economic recovery,” said Taveras in his plan to invigorate the tourism economy.
“Tourism can be an incredibly powerful engine of economic growth, and Rhode Island is ideally suited to take advantage of it,” Raimondo said in her tourism proposal released in April.
Each offered similar bullet points to boost out-of-state visitors. Improve infrastructure, market the state better, support the arts and entertainment.
“Our tourism economy is a driving force in our sense of pride and sense of place,” Taveras wrote. “We have so much to be proud of in Rhode Island. It is time to let the world know.”
They each said they could create thousands of new jobs.
Raimondo, who often invokes her family vacations to Sand Hill Cove in stump speeches, said Rhode Island “on the whole spends less on investing in tourism and travel than almost any other state in the country.”
No wonder the Ocean State is mired in a recession! Rhode Island made big bets on tax cuts and Curt Schilling to grow our economy when perhaps we would have been better off doubling down on our natural and historical strong suit: tourism.
We may be the smallest state in the nation, but there’s no good reason we can’t also be America’s best destination.