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Embracing tourism helps our island thrive
By JIM MARSH
When you bring up the word “tourist” to an islander, you learn a lot about them by how they react to that word. Some people get angry — they fear tourists and the effect they have on the island, going as so far as to sport bumper stickers that call for the outlaw of tourism on Vashon. Others, still fearful of tourists, are a little more pragmatic and welcome tourist dollars for local business but want them gone once they’ve spent their money. Then there are those who are welcoming and work to cultivate relationships with tourists. They consider them a vital part of island life and don’t consider them “tourists” in the negative sense. To these people, tourists are hikers, coffee aficionados, foodies, beach-goers, wine connoisseurs, art collectors, gardeners, shoppers, quilters, music lovers, cyclists, kayakers and customers.
Many of Vashon’s most loved businesses depend on the careful cultivation of these relationships. While we are not a totally tourism-dependent economy, the support that visitors bring to Vashon businesses is significant. Sales to off-islanders can range from 25 to 65 percent of a business’s gross income. It can mean the difference between staying in business and closing shop. All islanders, despite their attitude toward tourists, benefit when talented shopkeepers, chefs, artists, bakers, distillers, vintners, coffee roasters, bed and breakfast owners, gallery owners, tattoo artists, farmers, soap makers, brewers, dog treat makers and florists are able to make a decent living here. We get the pleasure of their company, but also get to enjoy the quality of their talents and shop with them year-round.
Vashon has a higher quality and diversity of food, art galleries, musicians and shops than most similarly populated rural places in the U.S. We also have a degree of natural beauty that is extremely attractive to visitors, so people are going to want to come over for a visit. At the Chamber’s visitors’ center, we find that most of them are really nice people. They come to Vashon because it is a great way to get away from the city or because they are pursuing something they love. We get a chance to share some of the amazing things Vashon has to offer and have learned that most of them want to be a part of such a great place. Most want to preserve Vashon and actively support island businesses, and they are open to learning about how to do things the Vashon way.
Once a person is ON the island they are OF the island. We want visitors to treat Vashon like we do. We want them to experience the wonders of Vashon like we do, to understand why we love it here, to cherish it and care for it like we do. We want them to enjoy being a part of island life like we do. For despite feeling miles away from the rest of the world, Vashon is a part of a greater community, and we benefit when that greater community values Vashon the way we value Vashon.
Last weekend we welcomed a new business to the town core. The owners were frequent visitors to Vashon and in some circles could have been called tourists. They recently invested in Vashon, revitalizing a storefront and creating a business we now all get to enjoy, the Vashon Island Baking Company. Had we outlawed tourism, they would never have come here. Had we alienated them by taking their money and wanting them gone, we might have had a vacant storefront, which nobody wants. Instead they felt welcomed and became a part of Vashon before they moved here.
We islanders are lucky. We live in a place we love; we are influenced by our surroundings and our community, and we help shape it. As much as Vashon stays the same, it is also a dynamic place that inspires people. Visitors are changed by their experiences on Vashon more often than Vashon is changed by them. So don’t fear the tourist. Expand your appreciation of travelers beyond their wallet and learn to welcome the visitor. Visitors play a part in what makes Vashon what it is and what it can be. When you celebrate and share what you love about the island, you too cultivate a relationship with others who will join you in sustaining the Vashon you love.
— Jim Marsh is the director of the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce.