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Graffiti, Banner Declare ‘Overtourism is Killing Big Sur' as Locals Search for Solutions

As tourists flock to the increasingly popular Bixby Bridge in Monterey County, Big Sur residents are grappling with escalating activism, a stressed ecosystem and overburdened infrastructure.

A banner proclaiming "OVERTOURISM IS KILLING BIG SUR" appeared on the Bixby Bridge last week. The California Highway Patrol removed it immediately, but reported on Tuesday that they found the same message in gold graffiti at the bridge's parking lot.

The CHP is seeking felony vandalism charges once they identify the suspect and said the graffiti will cost the state at least $1,700 to remove.

Butch Kronlund, a 30-year Big Sur resident and executive director of the Community Association of Big Sur, said the graffiti is "out of bounds" and not reflective of his community.

Kronlund said tourism has been an economic boom, but disrespectful visitors and a lack of resources have caused major negative impacts to the region.

"Clearly it's not everybody, it's enough knuckleheads that are ruining it for everyone else," he said.

Kronlund and his neighbors have found human waste in their driveways due to a lack of public restrooms, trash surrounding popular visitor areas and perpetually congested roads near Bixby Bridge and Big Sur as a whole.

This includes recreational vehicles setting up on roadsides due to limited campsites. Kronlund said residents are "particularly sensitive" to unauthorized camping because of the July 2016 Soberanes Fire, which burned nearly 60 homes and killed a bulldozer operator after being sparked by an illegal campfire.

At Pfeiffer Beach, Kronlund said tide pools have been stripped and tourists have rearranged rocks in patterns and stacks "based on somebody's idea of what's cool," disrupting the animals that live underneath.

He doesn't know who's behind the banner and graffiti, but said Big Sur residents are a tight-knit, cohesive unit that want to find constructive solutions to their problems. Last November, locals launched the Big Sur Pledge online to "protect and nurture" the region.

"We want to be good hosts, I don't think anyone in our community hates tourists or wants them to go home," he said.

Visit Monterey, a tourism bureau whose primary function is to attract visitors, has also taken on the role of educating tourists about responsible practices. Its advertisements in the last year have carried slogans like, "The Ocean is Calling, Show it Respect," "Highway 1 is Ready, Are You?" and a "Sustainable Moments" information campaign.

Robert O'Keefe, chief marketing officer for Visit Monterey, said Big Sur has been an international destination for decades and local frustrations are not new, but the "phenomenon" of Instagram and social media has led to a huge jump in publicity for the area.

Caltrans has also seen an increase in travelers along the Bixby Bridge corridor since the two-lane route reopened to through traffic last July after being closed in three different locations following a May 2017 mudslide.

This is the first full summer since 2016 that visitors are able to drive straight through Carmel and Big Sur to Hearst Castle in San Luis Obispo County.

Road improvements, Instagram, and representations of the Bixby Bridge in the media, like the hit HBO show "Big Little Lies," which O'Keefe called a "postcard for Monterey County," have together created a frenzy to visit the bridge and take sometimes-risky photos -- like while driving on the bridge or off-road.

Kronlund said this desire for the perfect, shareable shot is taking away from appreciating a "powerful, spiritual" place.

"Ten years ago, when people would come to Big Sur, they were awed by the landscape and they were in a sense subservient to it," he said. "Now folks that show up -- all Big Sur is, is a backdrop for their movie."

Visit Monterey is now focusing on bringing in tourists from Europe and China, and has been working with tour bus operators to ensure safe visits. It also targets company conferences and groups who will fly in to the region, avoiding the congestion of state Highway 1 altogether.

Last year, the region saw about 4.6 million overnight visitors -- a 2 percent increase from 2017 -- paired with about $2.9 billion in spending, according to O'Keefe. The same area saw about 3.5 million overnight guests and $2.4 billion in spending in 2013, according to a study by tourism analytics firm Dean Runyan Associates.

The tourism bureau is working to increase spending, while also collaborating with the Community Association of Big Sur to support local residents. Kronlund said a solution will require help from Caltrans and state agencies, including the CHP, for traffic enforcement.

The Big Sur area has also seen a 15 percent increase in traffic since the recession in 2008, Caltrans spokesman Colin Jones said. During peak months, this means 10,000 vehicles a day traveling up and down the narrow, winding route, creating mile-long backups with both tourists and residents for whom the road is their only thoroughfare.

Jones said the route is equipped to handle about 20,000 drivers and Caltrans will consider widening shoulders and upgrading guardrails, but the Bixby Bridge will always be a two-lane highway.

Locals are holding a community meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 5 at the Big Sur Grange Hall to discuss a "destination stewardship plan" to maintain the environmental and economic integrity of their region, while promoting public access and enjoyment. Some stakeholders project a doubling in tourism in the coming years.

"If we don't get with it now, and begin to prepare for that, I don't know what will happen," Kronlund said.

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