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Liz Nichols / Staff Illustrator

Looking to escape the cold and gloomy reality we wake up to every day in the city and to unwind from school during spring break? Well, for the second year in a row, Tampa Bay's Clearwater Beach has topped TripAdvisor's list as America's best beach! Although it is incredible for those looking for a beachy escape, it is quite a shame for those of us who call the Tampa Bay area home.

Juice straight from the orange, driving with the windows down, soft sugar-sand beaches––all these images come to mind at the mention of our gorgeous Tampa Bay. Yet, it could all disappear due to the heightened media presence Clearwater Beach has been receiving in recent years.

Columbia, a school known for its social justice and activism over climate change, seems to forget about its own impact on the environment during spring break. Students fly across the country to warm beaches and tropical areas like Tampa Bay to escape the cold. However, we should be aware of the impacts of our tourism. As we begin to make plans, it is important that we look past the Yelp reviews of the destinations we plan to visit and truly consider the implications of our presence in these spaces. Tampa Bay is one of many spaces that has been negatively impacted by an increase in tourism in recent years.

It is undeniable that many of these destinations depend on tourism. Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is responsible for all the record-keeping of Pinellas County tourism and has reported that the 2017 fiscal year alone generated $10.3 billion in revenue. Tourism revenue continues to increase every year and is vital to the businesses that support Pinellas County’s economy; not only that, the livelihoods of many families rely on tourism as one out of 10 people work within the industry.

As a resident of Tampa Bay, I share these sentiments and recognize the relevance tourism has on our daily lives. Despite that, as a young adult, I fear for the future. We are living during a time in which the United Nations has warned that we have 11 years to make drastic changes in how we approach protecting our environment until catastrophes, like stronger hurricanes, ensue. In addition, President Donald Trump has pulled our country out of the worldwide Paris Agreement to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions. Thus, the responsibility falls with us to protect and care for our individual environments.

Tampa Bay business owners and institutions are already taking steps toward creating a healthier environment, such as the elimination of plastic bags and use of biodegradable toiletries. However, Environment Florida has released water pollution facts for Tampa Bay that are terrifying. For example, more than 4 billion gallons of oil and fertilizer ingredients are dumped annually into the bay, and more than 80 percent of the bay’s lakes and reservoirs have failed basic water quality tests. Some of these tourists may be our peers, but who am I to place blame on them when Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is buying ads from the MTA at the nearby Cathedral Parkway-110th Street station?

There is no doubt that the increase in tourists has produced substantial economic vitality, but the allure of money should not cloud our judgment or take precedent in our minds. Tourism will continue to harm the Tampa Bay beaches as well as our air, lakes, and reservoirs if action is not taken. Clearwater Beach, in particular, will soon deteriorate into something that is not list-topping worthy––and what happens after that? Although fruitful, the current economic gain from tourism cannot outweigh the ensuing economic decline that will occur once Clearwater Beach––and Tampa Bay as a whole, has seen its spotlight dimmed by pollution.

As the climate crisis continues to intensify, I hope that we, as Columbia students and as the next generation of beachgoers, begin to practice mindfulness when it comes to environmental conservation as the spring travel months inch closer––whether you are traveling to the Tampa Bay area or not. So, maybe look beyond TripAdvisor when making your travel plans this spring break.

The author is a current undergraduate student at Columbia University and a frequent beachgoer from Tampa Bay.

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