By Chris Quilter
July Fourth marks the traditional start of the Summer Tourist Season. Laguna is said to have over six million visitors a year, but on holidays like the Fourth, it can feel like they’ve all shown up at once.
Laguna wasn’t always a tourist town. Then the settlers arrived. Farming soon gave way to the greener pastures of what is now our only industry. Where would we be without it? Laguna Residents First wouldn’t mind finding out. As one of them wrote, disparagingly but accurately, our hometown is “overrun by visitors.” LRF’s core belief is that residents haven’t been first for far too long, and that the City Council, City Manager, Chamber of Commerce, Visit Laguna, and the developers who have bought them are to blame.
I disagree. We’re all to blame or not to blame. For decades, no matter who was running things, we’ve invested countless millions and our hearts and souls into festivals, pageants, plays, fireworks, concerts, parks, concerts in the parks, the greenbelt and bluebelt, and our pristine beaches which were just awarded another “A” from Heal The Bay. All we got in return is a town as alluring to outsiders as it is to us. So we might as well roll out the welcome mat and fleece our guests in agreeable ways.
Our well-heeled visitors seem okay with this. Just check out the room rates at the Montage or the price of a hamburger at the Hotel Laguna. But they are vastly outnumbered by those deadbeats, the daytrippers. Okay, they have the right to flock to beaches that belong to them too, except for the ones in Irvine Cove, Emerald Bay, and Three Arch Bay. And they feed the meters whose rates we jack up as fast as the Coastal Commission will let us. But does that cover the cost of having them over?
Not even close if you ask John Thomas, who has made it his mission to quantify this issue. Thomas’ data haven’t been put to the test by fellow number crunchers. But if he’s right, all I can say in the nicest possible way to one of the nicest possible guys is “So?” We live in an objectively fabulous and increasingly unaffordable town. It’s in our enlightened self-interest to share a bit of our wealth with those less fortunate souls forced to live beyond the greenbelt. Because the same things that appeal to them are also “resident-serving” and we have them 24/7.
Tourism has its downsides, to be sure. But we don’t give ourselves enough credit for managing them. I moved back to Laguna 30 years ago. Since then, our population has soared from roughly 23,000 to… 22,795, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
Meanwhile, the county population went from 2.4 to 3.2 million with most of the increase in communities that brag about being beach close. Our town should be hell on wheels by now—and I don’t mean the kids joyriding on their E-bikes as they wait to turn 16. But it’s not.
Take just two of the many reasons why: the trolleys and those pedestrian scrambles on Coast Highway. They’ve actually made inching through downtown seconds faster. I confirmed this riding in a trolley at the height of Fête de la Musique. It’s presented by our Sister Cities Association, whose passionate dedication to tourism helps to explain why the town was jammed with happy hordes from who knows where. Even so, I arrived in plenty of time to watch my kid brother play in his one-man surf band and kill it.
A cherished niece once gave me a coffee mug that says: “You Kids Get Off My Lawn.” So I am in no position to call anyone a party pooper for complaining that the town is “overrun by visitors.” All we can really do about it, however, is suck it up, or keep griping, or move away from the coast but not as far as Solvang, Ojai, Julian, or Napa. Those of us who do opt out will be able to afford twice the house for half the money. And whenever we want, we can drive to Laguna to have fun at the expense of the locals. Don’t worry. They have to let us back in, slowly but for as long as we want.
Then we’ll have to go home.
Chris is an advocate for housing and senior issues, and past co-writer of Lagunatics.