In Destin, Life Is a Carnival

By Charles Morgan III


Destin is at a crossroads. We’ve been there before. Unfortunately, more often than not, we’ve taken the wrong path.


Tourism in Destin has taken on different forms over the 40 years Harbor Docks has been in business. In the past eight years, since the BP oil spill, the tourism industry has morphed into something that I haven’t seen before.


We’ve sold our soul.


If you are fortunate enough to have a retirement savings account, you are usually instructed to have a diverse portfolio. That is so that if one segment of our economy does poorly, you’ll have holdings in areas that may do well. In sports gambling parlance, that would be termed “hedging your bets.” I’ve always advised my children to keep their options open. There’s even the old sage adage “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”


The powers that be in Destin have flaunted that advice. Over history, the path of our development has devolved into a frantically crazed drive towards increasing tourism. It’s an all-out effort. And we’re all in.


The brand for Destin is certainly no longer The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village. It’s closer to something like HEADS IN BEDS – BUTTS ON JET SKIS – EVERYONE TO CRAB ISLAND.


We’ve got helicopter rides, parasailing, jet skis and pontoon boats, sightseeing cruises, fireworks, zip-lines, AYCE (an acronym we all now recognize) seafood, and garish stores advertising “T-shirts 3 for $10” with sizes up to XXXXXXL.


This is not the “festive marketplace” that developers promised us. It’s an all out carnival. A county fair might be interesting one visit a year. Living in a savagely weird circus everyday is not what we bargained for. I haven’t been to a carnival or fair or circus in more than 30 years. I don’t feel like I have to. I experience it every day in my hometown.


Look, I’ve fed as many tourists as anyone. I used to spend the late winter months nervously hoping that the tourists would come in the spring and that it wouldn’t rain on the big holiday weekends. I wanted to make enough money to survive another winter.


But we offered a different town then, a different experience for our visitors.  There’s no hopeful anticipation for the number of tourists this year. We can’t possibly have any more visitors than we had last season. Traffic won’t be any more bearable this year than last. But I guess it couldn’t possibly get worse.


It’s not fair for me to rail on about Destin’s woes without offering an alternative. I’ve got one.


For God’s sake, get rid of the TDC. There is no more tourism to develop. There was 98 percent occupancy for decades before the BP oil crisis. A TMC (Tourist Maintenance Council) would have been better. At least get rid of the arm of the TDC that spends most of the funds on advertising. Do not spend another dollar on mass advertising!


We’ll still get plenty of tourists, and they will bring more money with them.


Eight years ago, following the BP spill, the TDC, in sheer panic, offered free gift cards for $100 of gas and $100 of shopping at the outlet mall. The cards that weren’t stolen ended up in the hands of budget conscious tourists looking for a deal. They haven’t stopped coming.


Long ago, I grew tired of listening to economic development people dream about luring the next Google or Facebook or Apple to our area. Hello? THEY’RE NOT COMING!


Great companies aren’t attracted to locations because of tax breaks. They settle in towns that have a wonderful quality of life—not places that resemble gaudy carnivals. They’re apt to locate in places where you can ride a bicycle without getting murdered. More than any single thing, they are drawn by excellent schools.


Unless something changes quickly, my three grandchildren will likely go to an elementary school where they will sit in the same FEMA-style portable, trailer classroom that their fathers did. Destin Elementary is virtually unchanged since their grandmother went there in the 1960s. That is criminal.


Our school would be a great place to start if we really want to make Destin special again. But it’s hard to concentrate on schools when you’re constantly battling to keep high-rise timeshare buildings from marring the landscape.


There is a time for everything. It’s past time for us to get selfish with our town. Let’s make it an absolutely wonderful place to live and work and raise kids.


I promise—if we’d take a deep breath and forget about tourism, things can get better. Tourists won’t abandon us because we’ve made Destin a spectacular place to live. They’ll enjoy their visits, and we’ll enjoy our lives.

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