Bridging Islands – Chapter 7

Tourism, Links, and Islandness off Florida’s Gulf Coast
Russell Fielding

Small islands are undeniably popular tourist destinations. Pull factors such as the island’s remoteness, boundedness, and insularity combine to create a state of “islandness” that is one of the most attractive—and elusive—characteristics of small islands. The state of islandness can be attributed, at least in part, to an island’s separation from the mainland and to the effort required to access the island. Yet, no island’s isolation is total. Every island depends, to some degree, upon links to the mainland. The nature of these links can be one of the most defining characteristics of an island’s insularity. It is ironic then, that one of the main contributors to an island’s attractiveness as a tourism destination – its islandness – can be diminished by the availability of fixed or mobile links, which may be present merely to facilitate access by tourists, the very market to whom the concept of islandness may be most crucial. This chapter examines the tourism industries on three uninhabited, state-administered islands along the west coast of Florida which are linked to the mainland by various means. Through interviews with state officials, environmental groups, and tourists themselves, evidence for the effects upon islandness of various degrees of linkage between islands and the mainland will be presented and criticized.The coastline of Florida is virtually outlined by small barrier islands (Figure 1) and the state’s beaches are recognized by many as being among the most beautiful in the world. The gulf coast is especially known for its expanses of powdery white sand, clear warm water, and famous sunshine. The barrier islands are no exception. In fact, as is true with all islands, the proportion of coastline to total land area is quite high as compared to mainland beaches. It is, therefore, no surprise that many of the barrier islands have been developed and marketed as ideal tourist destinations. This development varies in degree from island to island. One aspect of development that varies widely among Florida’s islands is the concept of the fixed link.

three islands have been chosen that are alike in most ways except for the link and the resultant level of development: Honeymoon Island, Caladesi Island, and Anclote Key. The three islands are located in the Gulf of Mexico, off the western coast of Florida. All are designated as state parks by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and all are uninhabited, except by resident Park Service employees and a small compound of condominiums outside of the park boundaries on Honeymoon Island. These condominiums were not included in the study area for this research. Approximately 1,500 residents reside in two communities outside of the state park on Honeymoon Island. According to the manager of The Royal Stewart Arms, the larger of the two complexes, about half the residents are seasonal and half live there year-round. Together with some other state-administered islands in the area, the three islands in this study make up the Florida Gulf Islands GeoPark (Florida State Parks website). Geographically, the islands are relatively the same size, support similar flora and fauna, and are affected by the same weather systems.

The data gathered in this study illustrate that the type of linkage between an island and the mainland has a profound impact upon the tourist experience on the island. Islands that are connected to the mainland by a fixed link maintain a closer connection to the mainland in the perception of their visitors. They attract visitors who value insularity the least when choosing a beach for recreation and who value ease of access the most. Tourists on islands that are accessible only by private boat value insularity the most, enjoy the necessary boat trip as part of their recreation experience, and prefer islands in general to mainland destinations. Islands with regular ferry service often fall between linked and unlinked islands on most measures of perceptions of insularity by tourists.

Different types of tourist are attracted to islands with different forms of linkage. This typology is not necessarily based upon socio-economic circumstances. In Florida, boat ownership is not always a sign of affluence. It is more a sign of lifestyle choice as boats are common throughout the state and are owned by people from varied economic backgrounds. The islands examined were all viewed positively by the tourists that visited them. Two types of seemingly contradictory appeal exist among these islands: the appeal of remoteness and the appeal of accessibility. The difficulty, or lack, of access is seen as an important component of islandness. When an island becomes more accessible, it is less attractive to certain types of tourists. Conversely, an island can be seen as prohibitively remote to other tourist types if it does not have a convenient enough form of linkage. The presence or absence of a link from the island to the mainland, and the type of linkage used, are the characteristics which define an island’s remoteness and/or accessibility best.

Choice of island destinations is not random, nor is it always based upon location. Tourists showed that they were willing to travel further and by costlier means in order to visit the island that they prefer. Island tourists choose the island that they want to visit based, to a high degree, upon the perceived character of the island itself, which in turn is based in part upon the type of linkage between that island and the mainland. Thus, a major implication of this chapter is that planners and policymakers work toward the availability of a variety of both linked and unlinked islands in their infrastructure development. Based upon the findings of this study, it becomes clear that a diversity of island linkages will best serve a diversity of island tourists.


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