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Growing Pains: Big crowds on a little island can bring out the darker side of Great Lakes tourism

Growing Pains: Big crowds on a little island can bring out the darker side of Great Lakes tourism
July 23, 2019 Lorraine Boissoneault

As with many traditions, “Christmas in July” started with innocent intentions.

It was first a celebration for summer employees who lived on South Bass Island during the tourist season. The celebration gradually morphed into a boater bonanza, with vessels decking out their rigging and rails with Christmas lights.

But the faux holiday continued to grow, until the weekend nearest to July 25 became one of the island’s biggest parties. The South Bass town of Put-In-Bay became a victim of its own success. Having somewhat unwillingly earned the reputation of “Key West in the North,” the event was a fete for rowdy, intoxicated revelers.

And in 2018, it came to a head.

Photo by Kevin Payravi via wikimedia.org cc 3.0

Put-in-Bay view from the Peace Memorial, Photo by Kevin Payravi via wikimedia.org cc 3.0

The 3.7-mile-long island with only about 100 year-round residents saw about 35,000 tourists arrive over that one weekend. Several fights broke out on the ferry docks and trash littered parts of the island. Every golf cart on the island—the island’s main form of transportation—was rented, causing congestion in the downtown area.

The Put-In-Bay Police, planning in advance, mustered an additional team of officers from the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Ohio Highway Patrol. They made 27 arrests, issued 75 citations for minor misdemeanors and responded to 150 calls for service.

In the days that followed, newspapers and social media proclaimed the end of Christmas in July. Some blamed tourists arriving from Detroit. Others pointed the finger at tour operators bringing too many busloads of people. In 2019, for the first time since the tradition started, all Put-In-Bay businesses wiped any mention of the event from their advertising.

But questions remain: Can a community reliant on tourism end up with too much of a good thing? Was Christmas in July 2018 a flash-in-the-pan bit of bad luck—or indicative of a larger problem?

‘Wouldn’t be able to live here’ without tourism

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region, including eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, brings in 56 percent of North American tourists each year, despite accounting for only 22 percent of the population.

Put-in-Bay alone welcomes around 750,000 tourists annually, and it’s one of three islands visited by daily summertime ferries. The others are Kelleys Island and Middle Bass Island.

“The winters are quiet, which is nice, but then everything comes alive with spring,” said Katrina Reed, a resident of South Bass Island who works for Miller Ferry. “We wouldn’t be able to live here if it wasn’t for tourism.”

But with so many visitors come a plethora of challenges. Small islands need the infrastructure to host overnight visitors. They have to build and maintain attractions for families. And with so few residents, they need people to fill the thousands of jobs that appear during the tourism season.

This last element has been particularly challenging for Mackinac Island. The Michigan island, famous for having no cars, requires 3,000 additional employees to help staff hotels and restaurants, and often relies on foreign workers to fill those roles. But problems getting visas for those workers means the island has struggled to get workers over the past few years.

Photo by millerferry via flickr.com cc 2.0

Miller Ferry Lime Kiln Dock Put-in-Bay, Photo by millerferry via flickr.com cc 2.0

Then there’s the issue of transportation. For places like Put-in-Bay, Pelee Island and Mackinac, that means ferries or small planes. The Miller Ferry is one of two lines serving South Bass Island, with four boats in rotation running every half hour from the mainland, and a fifth boat currently being built. The staff also tries to plan ahead for high-traffic weekends, such as the Lake Erie Bicentennial in 2013.

But the 2018 Christmas in July debacle was an unexpectedly high traffic day. Numerous tour buses showed up at once, with too many passengers to be transported on one boat. Tamika Williams, who organized one of the tour groups and brought people from Detroit, would later see her name in news articles about the weekend.

“I’m getting the backlash of hate even now,” Williams said. “I don’t want anybody to be thinking I had anything to do with that.” Though she came with multiple tour buses, Williams said her group only stayed for the day. She usually caters to families and older people, and she felt like Detroit unfairly got the blame for the chaos, when visitors came to the island from all over Ohio and Michigan. “The overnight crowd is pretty wild and has always been that wild, that’s why I chose never to spend the night.”

Cheryl Rose, who coordinates group scheduling for Miller Ferry, said the new policy is to register motor coach groups in advance. If buses show up without registering, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to board the ferry right away.

As for Corporal Mike Russo, one of five year-round police officers on Put-In-Bay, he thinks it’s a small number of rowdy people who cause problems. In his experience, larger numbers don’t necessarily lead to more conflict.

“We’ve had weekends where there’s not a lot of people on the island and we’ll be busier, and we could have a super large crowd and not have any problems,” Russo said.

The most dangerous combination seems to be people mixing alcohol and golf carts, rented by vendors around the island. For the police department, sometimes responding to those issues means tapping officers from other police forces. Sometimes it’s just being a visible presence on the island.

Tourist toll leads to island alliance

It’s hard to predict all the impacts tourists might have on any island. One researcher noted that noise pollution, gas emissions and littering can all take a toll on natural areas. The demographics of visitors might change, as on Pelee Island, where residents suggest that a switch from hunters and fishers to bikers and birders has meant less revenue. Buzzing drones might disrupt horses pulling carriages. A bill is being debated in Michigan to address this very issue on Mackinac Island.

Image by northland.edu

Great Lakes Islands Alliance Island Summit 2019, Image by northland.edu

Recently, representatives from 20 islands banded together to form the Great Lakes Islands Alliance and discuss issues related to the growth of tourism, said Peter Huston, director of Put-In-Bay’s Chamber of Commerce. With a conference upcoming in October, they hope to brainstorm strategies for this type of problem.

Even with all the challenges—including an upcoming July 25 weekend that businesses aren’t billing as an event—Russo still believes Put-In-Bay receives far more benefits than detriments from tourism. “We enjoy it out here,” he said. “You get to see people from all over the country coming out here to enjoy the island.”

If there’s a limit to the number of people the island can support, he hasn’t seen it reached.

Yet.

1 Comment

  1. Chris & Sharon Amlin 1 month ago

    I sure hope that this past weekend was more calm that last year. Last year was just disgusting !

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