Paloma Welch

Exploring the world’s wonders is an overarching goal for many people; however, tourists often neglect to consider the locals of their vacation locations.

Tourism culture amongst Americans has rapidly accelerated over the past two decades due to the popularity of social media, which greatly impacts communities like St. Petersburg, Florida. St. Petersburg is an urban-suburban, peninsular city in the Tampa Bay area that has quickly become a booming tourist hotspot, with a record-breaking $1.1 billion in local hotel revenue for 2023. As a result, the economy and local businesses have improved despite the declining quality of living for locals and the worsening of ecosystems.

“It seems like more people ultimately came to Florida for a warmer climate to work remotely from,” said Sharon Wright, the former sustainability and resilience officer of the St. Petersburg City Council. “There were teams of city staff … that made marketing plans and campaigns for various things — some that would be tourist oriented.”

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the domestic trips taken by United States citizens rose above 2.3 million in 2019. A significant cause for this growth is the rise of the internet and social media sites in the 21st century. Popular social media sites, like Instagram and TikTok, provide platforms for travel influencers who focus on national and international travel. Alongside travel blogs, influencers on these platforms aim to showcase enjoyable travel locations and provide tips on making travel more accessible.

While influencers and bloggers are popularly promoting travel, many cities — and their landmark’s marketing teams — have also taken measures toward promoting their towns. For example, the Empire State Building, New York City’s most famous landmark, has acquired a social media presence on TikTok with 1.1 million followers. As stated by Abigail Rickards, the building’s vice president of marketing, in an interview with the New York Post, their goal was to make the landmark more relatable to the people.

“We actually have a marketing team and influencer on our staff because we are sister properties with the Birchwood Inn, so we have multiple venues,” explains Eddie Hodkinson, the senior manager of local business Pier Teaki, a rooftop bar on the St. Petersburg Pier and a prominent tourist hotspot for the city. “Because we are technically on city property, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater really does all that kind of marketing for us.”

Tourism is one of the major backbones of economies worldwide, especially in the United States. In 2021, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater estimated a $4 billion economic gain from tourism in the Pinellas County area, which includes St. Petersburg. Most importantly, tourism supported 90,000 local jobs in 2021.  Additionally, East Coast beaches draw in tourists, and local businesses thrive as a result. However, the downtown area is the primary focus for St. Petersburg’s charm. 

Madelyn Collier, a student at St. Petersburg High School, went from working at a restaurant in the middle of the city to Doc Fords, the primary restaurant of the St. Petersburg Pier. When asked about this, she stated, “The transition was certainly a massive change for me, for one, seating hundreds of tourists a day compared to a few on occasion.” The restaurant environment of downtown businesses is busier and more beneficial for employees, according to Collier.

While tourism can be fruitful for the local economy and businesses, the costs often outweigh the benefits for St. Petersburg residents. As the city rises in its vacation popularity, hotels and businesses raise their prices to correlate with high demand. High tourism rates also lead to more road and foot traffic. 

On a smaller scale, Pomfret, a small town in Vermont, saw a similar rise in tourism over the past few years when influencers began to visit the small town to photograph themselves on Sleepy Hollow Farm. Deborah Goodwin, the exhibit coordinator at the Artistree Community Arts Center in Pomfret, told the BBC that tourists would frequently climb fences and block roads to photograph the farm. In response, locals successfully closed the road to non-residents during the peak autumnal season. 

Local St. Petersburg resident Stella Alexander applauds this initiative, stating, “There’s no parking downtown, and I live here. It makes parking at my own house difficult.”

A major element of St. Petersburg’s appeal is its beautiful ecosystem, which includes beaches, nature parks and lakes. As a peninsular city, St. Petersburg is surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, which increases the importance of minimizing water pollution. 

But because of the city’s popularity among tourists, it has created more roads and buildings. This leads to a lack of porous surfaces, which decreases the absorption of rainwater into the ground and increases its harmful flow into the ocean. Leslie Craig, a supervisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, stated, “Given that global climate change is contributing to more frequent heavy pulses of rain, it is more important than ever that we have adequate porous surfaces … to avoid the sweeping of nutrients and pollution from the land directly to our waterways.” 

With the rapid development of St. Petersburg’s infrastructure to support the tourism industry, water pollution is worsening. Organizations like NOAA are taking measures to restore the local habitat and directly benefit water quality. Correspondingly, the benefits of social media can extend beyond just increasing travel but can be used to inform individuals on how to discourage water pollution. 

St. Petersburg became an established city in 1903.