Tourist traps and coastal cosmopolitanism—a profitable pairing.

The trendy tourist trap town offers more than a chance for alliteration (which I obviously can NEVER pass up). It affords great opportunities for analysis, because, nine times out of ten, this funky community with abnormal appeal differs from the surrounding areas in numerous other ways beyond the dollars it racks up in out-of-town visitors. Rehoboth Beach in southern Delaware is a perfect example.IMG_7886

I’m sure I could devise multiple ways to categorize these magnetic municipalities—and experts on the tourist economy have no doubt already done so—but, for the purposes of this argument, I’ll focus specifically own towns ideally under 10,000 people; otherwise they’re small cities. And I’ll break them into two primary groups: those that offer a draw intrinsic to the human settlement itself, either because of history or particularly distinctive (often well-preserved) architecture, or those with a geographic feature upon which the proximal town subsists. While parts of Rehoboth Beach are undeniably very pretty, it falls squarely into the second category, as its name would attest. It’s a beachfront tourist trap town.IMG_7885IMG_7889

While the Census reports Rehoboth Beach as a city (per the State of Delaware’s constitutional stipulations for what constitutes a city), its population has hovered around 1,500 for the last few decades. It has tight municipal boundaries. But the tourist economy that brings tens of thousands of visitors each summer splays outward from the town for miles, extending to some of Delaware’s other beaches to the south (Dewey, Bethany). But Rehoboth is the best known among them, and it’s the key draw. And though it seems pretty urbanized on its own terms, its not particularly close to any other urban areas: resting squarely on the Delmarva Peninsula, the closest metros are Dover, DE and Sailsbury, MD, each about 50 miles away (and smallest metros of approximately 100,000 people). The two largest cities, Washington DC and Norfolk VA, are well over a two-hour drive away. Outside of the beachfront towns, southern Delaware remains largely agrarian. Not a hotbed of international appeal. Like many tourist traps that depend on their natural features for recreational opportunities, Rehoboth is a seasonal place: I’d wager that 90% of its economic activity gets compressed into the 3-4 months that meet southern Delaware’s meteorological standard for “summer”. (Obviously, Vail, Colorado, in the heart of the Rockies, would enjoy its bump during the opposite solstice.)

On a typical sunny August weekend, when we laze along the sidewalks of Rehoboth Avenue (one of multiple commercial main streets for this town that punches above its weight class), they’re packed to the gills.IMG_7887But let’s step inside one of those adjacent storefronts:IMG_7894IMG_7895Kaisy’s Delights offers a pink-pastel interior not entirely unsuited to the location. What are its delights? If you haven’t cheated by clicking on the website yet (if the website is still active by the time you view this article), you might make a reasonable guess. It looks like it could serve sno-cones, fresh squeezed lemonade, or ice cream. While it does offer the latter, the menu is more interesting than that.IMG_7893At first blush, it might not look special. But check out those prices. Sure, they’re a bit higher than you might expect for a fast-casual eatery, but this is a prosperous beachfront town.  Tourist trap towns are always spendy.  More important: look at the numbers. Those nines. They’re not drawn the way Americans typically write them. That’s a European nine. Though Americans easily recognize a nine with a curled tail for the descender—we see it in print routinely—the D’Nealian method taught in almost all American schools (private and public) encourages strategic tails for certain print and cursive letters, while the American written “9” avoids a tail, terminating in a post much more akin to a question mark. I suspect this D’Nealian approach (and the Palmer method that preceded it) deliberately avoids confusion between the “9” and the lower-case “g”, which when written with the tail often can look similar. But few if any European countries apply the American approach when drawing the number 9. In other words, Kaisy’s Delights uses the European numbering. It also serves latkes, goulash, La Colombe coffee, and it plays classical music.

Is it obvious yet? Kaisy’s is a European-family-run establishment in the quiet corner of The First State. The website reveals that they are French-born but have Austro-Hungarian roots, and the Kaisy® is their variant on Kaiserschmarrn, an Alpine treat, somewhat akin to the American funnel cake. Needless to say, I’m cribbing the story from their website. But the intrigue doesn’t end there: at least half their staff is foreign-born (mostly European). While some might chalk it up to patronage, that’s not entirely fair. European college-age youth routinely enlist in cultural exchange programs so they can live and work the summer holiday in tourist trap towns like Rehoboth. This practice is quite typical throughout the Mid-Atlantic Coast, but I also witnessed it among summer help in and around the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota.

Thus, while Rehoboth Beach could seem like a sugar-glazed slice of Americana, it has a distinctly cosmopolitan flair. Foreign dialects among 19-year-olds abound (along with their middle-aged parents visiting). It instills intrigue throughout the town, but nobody’s going to begrudge the family that runs Kaisy’s Delights something as inconsequential as their non-American way of drawing the number nine. The same practice is obvious at another restaurant a few doors down:tourist trap Rehoboth BeachArchie’s looks like something out of Mayberry…or Disney’s Main Street. But check out that menu.IMG_7888It’s subtle, but unmistakable. They use the tails on the nine again, but check out the divider: it’s a comma. Americans use a decimal point; most mainland European countries do not.

Rehoboth’s international flair extends to residential quarters.IMG_7896Would we expect homes in a typical American town of 1,500 people to host French flags on their front stoop? Not likely. But a tourist trap clearly has something else to offer, and the demographic to support it.  Maybe this is the chateau of the Kaisy family—or one of the many other foreign-born entrepreneurs, capitalizing on the season.

14 thoughts on “Tourist traps and coastal cosmopolitanism—a profitable pairing.

  1. Holly Lingo

    Coming from a family that has lived in Rehoboth Beach since 1927, the Lingo’s, I never thought as the area as a ‘tourist trap”. Many have gathered here as they spend their holiday or hard earned days off. We have seen many changes to the area and embrace the European flair that gives charm and warmth to this beautiful sea side resort. May we continue to welcome and enjoy those who visit.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      “Tourist trap” definitely has a negative connotation, doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to. Rehoboth is still a pretty little town, but it does get jammed in the summer. I suspect things have escalated in recent years, as it’s turned into a de facto beach retreat for the D.C. crowd.

      Reply
    2. John Cruz

      I think there’s a big distinction between “tourist attraction” ie something that either locals or people from out of town will enjoy vs “tourist trap” which is something typically isn’t worth the time or money, and only the locals known better and avoid it at all costs.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Good points… I guess it’s a matter of perspective, and “tourist trap” for many conveys a waste of time. After all, no Visitors’ Bureau would use the term “tourist trap” to bring people in to the sites that it’s hoping to market. I personally think Rehoboth is a worthy destination. Then again, I’d imagine far more people would consider Wall Drug in South Dakota to be a tourist trap…and I think it’s a worthy destination too!

        Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Didn’t even notice until you mentioned. Pretty Euro, isn’t it? But yes–10 years ago, I’d imagine Nutella was a specialty product in the “International Foods – European” section. Now, places like Giant sell their own generic version. It’s gone mainstream.

      Reply
  2. Brian M

    Amusing! Thanks for this piece!

    I actually think the European way of writing dates makes more logical sense than the American.

    14 August, 2017. 14.8.17

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks Brian…
      My vote is for a third option: YYYYMMDD. (Or just YYMMDD. 171408.) This allows the dates to get sorted in alphabetical order while preserving chronology. It’s the approach widely used in US military.

      Reply
  3. Chris B

    If there are multiple shops on the boardwalk or main street with t-shirts and ball caps (and other stuff) that has the name of the place, then I’d say it is probably at least a little fitting to apply the label “tourist trap” to the immediate district around those places. That said, it can still be a “real” place and a pleasant destination, as Eric points out.

    Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        I don’t want to speak on Chris’s behalf, but, well, it looks like I’m going to…

        I’m guessing he’d refer to Fishermans Wharf or Ghirardelli Square as a tourist trap; not the entire city of San Francisco itself. In my former home of New Orleans, Bourbon Street is a tourist trap; most of the rest of the French Quarter is not.

        In the case of Rehoboth Beach, its hard not to see the area featured in most of my photos (where Rehoboth Avenue meets the boardwalk) as a tourist trap, but the treelined residential neighborhoods immediately to the north or south of that commercial hub are really beautiful, local, and they feel completely removed from the hubbub just stone’s throw away. And the town even has some lesser commercial streets that have a real local feel–remarkable for a village of less than 2,000 people.

        The best distinction that comes to mind between a “trap” and an “attraction” is in the world’s #1 tourist city, Paris. (Maybe not #1 after the events of recent years…) The Sacré-Coeur Basilica is unlikely to win any architectural awards, and it will probably never be considered “historic” by French standards. But the monumentality of it, the great vistas it affords from its presence on a hill, and its comparative isolation from the cliché tourist sites and Paris–all of these work together to make it the definition of “tourist trap”. And it’s obvious. All the streets leading to the main church are filled with tchotchke shops that use the same drab fluorescent lighting and distinguish heavily from the quiet neighborhoods nearby. It’s Ground Zero for tourist scams. But it’s also a 3-minute walk from the edge of the Montmartre neighborhood, also touristy but still retaining some vestiges of its boho history. The fashionable restaurants and galleries of Montmarte contrast powerfully with the monotonous junk shops on the sloped streets leading up to Sacré-Coeur. But there’s a rightful place for both expressions of entrepreneurship. Now if only the French had a word for “entrepreneur”…

        Reply
  4. Brian M

    I was being somewhat facetious. 🙂

    Parts of SF are downright dismal and unlikely to attract anyone. And that was before SF decided to emulate Rio or Johannesburg as the models for housing the lost souls.

    Your description of the streets leading up to the church sound like Powell Street between Market and Union Square. Gaudy electronics “boutiques” and touristy restaurants. Not fun!

    Reply

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