“Right now,” the narrator says soothingly, “We could all use a little personal space.”
His words float over gorgeous scenes of blue water, pristine beaches and verdant tropical greenery. The TV ad for Key West, the most well-known of the Florida Keys, has aired repeatedly during the last several weeks. And it’s so seductive I watch it each time as if it’s the first time I’ve seen it, drawn in by the actor’s sensuous invitation to “drink in the sun and sea” and to “come find all the space you need in the Florida Keys.”
By the end of that 30-second ad, I’m drooling. I remember the big fun I had while vacationing there several years ago. Like most visitors, I dropped some serious tourist dollars indulging in all the fun stuff — the festivals, the quirky bars, the beaches, the public art and the famous key lime pie. Tourism is the life’s blood of this little corner of heaven, a $2.4 billion business with 44% of local jobs linked to the industry.
That’s why it was a big deal in March 2020 when officials from Monroe County, which includes Key West, did the unthinkable — positioning giant barricades to shut off tourist access. The roadblocks were staffed round the clock by sheriff’s deputies.
Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers admitted it was a drastic move, “Because it’s not what the Keys are about. But these are extraordinary times.” Without tourists, the local economy shriveled; some restaurants, shops and bars didn’t survive. But today Key West is crowded with tourists despite warnings from Centers for Disease Control and Provention officials about a possible fourth wave of COVID-19. So many have been attracted by the expedited reopening, and an optional mask rule, that just a few months into 2021, tourism revenue is higher than 2019.
But there a lot of people like me who won’t be stepping foot into Florida for a long while. Too risky.
Which presents an excellent opportunity for Boston to capitalize on leadership decisions to reopen with caution and to support ongoing masking. Couldn’t be a more perfect time for Boston to engage in a bold strategy to attract Americans eager to travel but who want to feel safer. In pre pandemic 2019, just over 19 million domestic visitors traveled to Greater Boston, plus nearly 3 million international visitors.
But now, as Martha Sheridan, the president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, notes, “Revenue for the tourism sector is down as much as 70%.” Last week, acting Mayor Kim Janey announced All Inclusive Boston, a $2.5 million marketing drive with a two-fold mission. All Inclusive Boston touts Boston’s rich diversity of historic offerings as well as showcases the city’s neighborhoods and the residents of those neighborhoods beyond downtown — from Roxbury’s Love Story Mural, Brockton and Somerville’s ethnic restaurants, Mattapan’s Franklin Park Zoo and shops like Dorchester’s Streamline Antiques. The colorful campaign entices with its welcoming message: “Whatever you seek, whoever you are, there’s a place for you here.”
It doesn’t hurt that Janey, who is African-American, is now the face of Boston.
All Inclusive Boston’s six-week campaign kicks off just as more Americans are vaccinated, and restless, but also appropriately cautious about moving around outside of cloistered COVID pods.
At first glance it might seem as though the Florida Keys would have an unfair tourist advantage over Boston. But this new multicultural narrative could make all the difference in attracting people who would never come before. Add the city’s easy accessibility by car, and Boston could potentially come out on top in the fierce nationwide battle for tourism revenue dollars. And if the marketing campaign brings new attention to businesses of color, then the city’s economic recovery might actually become that proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.
Look out Key West — we’re coming for you. And no place knows better than Boston that the road to a comeback is a marathon.