NOLA: Community vs. Commodity

May 29, 2013 by

(Or: What’s wrong with the tourism industry as it currently exists in New Orleans and can we work together as a community to fix it?)

Elizabeth Becker, author of the bestselling book Overbooked, a critical analysis of the tourism industry, will be in New Orleans this week for two speaking engagements; she also kindly accepted my request for an interview (below).

The first will be on Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at Garden District Books (2727 Prytania St.) at 5:30 PM, for a discussion and book-signing.  The second will be on Thursday, May 30, 2013 at the Beauregard-Keyes House (1113 Chartres Street) from 6:00 – 8:00 PM, where she will do a presentation followed by a question-and-answer segment.  That event is in partnership with the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates.  A light reception will follow.

Ms. Becker, an award-winning former national and international correspondent for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and a former Senior Foreign Editor at National Public Radio, and has traveled extensively.  Her in-depth research and interviews, conducted literally all over the world, give her an unmatched perspective and insight into tourism.

“New Orleans is in many ways a crucible for the modern tourism industry,” says Meg Lousteau, Executive Director of the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA), whose group has coordinated Ms. Becker’s visit. “The city has announced plans to increase the number of visitors by 50% in the next five years. Tourism is arguably the city’s biggest industry, and we want it to continue to thrive.  But it’s worth learning about tourism management, public policy, and the pluses and minuses of modern mass tourism.”

“VCPORA is pleased to host this event in partnership with the Beauregard-Keyes House,” says president Carol Allen. “Our respective organizations share an interest in cultivating the kind of tourism that respects New Orleans history and celebrates its authentic culture.  What better place to host it than at this historic house museum in the French Quarter.”

Today I met with Ms. Becker to discuss the tourism industry and its prominence in New Orleans. Our conversation started with my discovering that she is from Seattle and, having lived there myself, we started with discussing its community-based efforts with regard to historic preservation and tourism:

Elizabeth Becker: “In 1971 in Seattle, the City Council had voted to tear the Pike St. Market down and the community acted to save it. Many civic associations and organizations were a part of this effort. By saving the market, which meant a lot of things to a lot of people (be it heritage, local farming, or all of those sorts of things), it’s now the center of tourism in Seattle.”

“The Alaskan Way Viaduct was a community argument — do we keep the Viaduct which was a scar across the harbor, or do we tear it down and relocate it closer to the city? It’s the same with the Pike St. Market and all the way down to Pioneer Square — leaving that historic was a big argument and a fight, and it was all community-based. And I think you have that in New Orleans — it’s a strong community.”

Me: “We do and we don’t — it’s an uphill battle. All of the pieces are there, but there’s no cohesion and it’s rare when all of the concerned parties are invited to the table and included in the planning process.”

“For instance, our French Market was modeled after Seattle’s Pike Place Market [as it’s currently most commonly known] during its rehabilitation after Hurricane Katrina. But we seem to still be struggling to get the kinds of vendors in that market that offer a similar quality of merchandise and provide the type of experience that the Pike Place Market provides. And, similar to the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, New Orleans is exploring options for the removal of the S. Claiborne overpass… how best to tear that down after it bisected the Tremé neighborhood — but it’s my impression that community participation in this project might not be particularly robust.”

Becker: “Right. It was in the paper this morning.”

Me: “I would say that, in your book, when you talk about Venice, you could apply that chapter directly to New Orleans, except I would suggest that instead of being “loved to death,” the French Quarter, in particular, is being sold out. I realize that that’s a harsh opinion, but when I consider that the preservationists who started their work in the 1920s to retain the character of the French Quarter and its architecture, ironically they sowed the seeds for what has become the center of tourism in New Orleans.”

“And it’s unfortunate in a way because it may well be killing the French Quarter as a neighborhood; we’re having more difficulty sustaining full-time residents in this neighborhood. Parking is always getting more difficult, and the kinds of businesses that are here don’t necessarily support local residents. We used to have several hardware stores; now we’re down to just one and there are really only three locations where one can make  — buy — groceries. It makes it difficult for people to be able to live here and shop locally in the community.”

Becker: “In the events today and tomorrow, I’ll be talking about the different experiences of Bordeaux, France and Venice, Italy, because that seems to me to be the most topical; I don’t know as much about New Orleans. But Bordeaux and Venice are the two examples of a city that restored and recovered itself for the locals (Bordeaux) and a city that focused on the tourists (Venice). [In the book, Ms. Becker writes, “In Venice, tourism has already undermined its way of life.”] This is a very conscious decision, and this is what citizens start with — that very basic decision.”

“You need a sense that your mayor, your local legislature, and the various authorities understand that the best way to have a profitable an sustaining tourism industry is [to create] one that is built around locals — not around tourists.”

Me: “That’s exactly the battle we’re waging. During last year’s ‘Hospitality Zone’ battle, we, as a community, had a rally cry or slogan of sorts — ‘We are a community — not a commodity.'”

Becker: “Well, you’ll see that in Bordeaux and you’ll see that for one of the most talented French politicians, Alain Juppé, it was just common sense to work with all of the citizens’ groups, work with Paris, and work with Brussels.”

“The best tourism is the version that restores and nurtures the basic personality of wherever you are.”

“Venice and Bordeaux are both old cities, à la New Orleans (and, in fact, much older). The mayor in Bordeaux was very transparent: he asked, “What do you want the city to look like? What kind of improvements? We’re going to do top-notch restoration; we’re going to make it more community-friendly. The community wanted more pedestrian areas, they wanted light rail to connect the towns so that they wouldn’t have to depend on cars, they looked at the river front — it’s a major port, right there on the Atlantic. They put in this beautiful, grassy park that people live on — right on the river. They hired a top-notch landscaper and there’s this beautiful space and it’s not just used, but it’s a beautiful addition to the city. They didn’t build anything –nothing —  all they did was bring back the beauty.”

“It was once one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, but when I lived in Paris, we never went to the city of Bordeaux — it had the reputation that Baltimore, Maryland, used to have. You only went to the vineyards around it. Juppé, the Mayor of Bordeaux, he just said, ‘Our city deserves better and our people deserve better. And if we do it right for ourselves, the tourists will come.'”

“You start with that attitude and then build out. You tap into all levels of government — he was also the Prime Minister at the national level — and then you use the the state government. France has a Ministry of Culture which we don’t have in the United States, and of course they have a very big national tourism agency, which we don’t have, and they involved the Department of Transportation. It took ten years, but now it’s one of those really fascinating places.”

“Each city is unique, but there are certain things that work well and you can see that.”

Me: “Certain approaches?”

Becker: “The ones that don’t work well are generally the ones where the community is not consulted and does not feel that they’re a part of those decisions — where the community does not have access to decision-makers or an understanding of how decisions are being made, or have a voice in those decisions. Even if the mayor is a master manipulator (or the City Council, or the state government, or the national government), there needs to be a discussion. The ones that work are the ones where there is a discussion, where the community is on board, and they’re involved and have to put in sweat equity — it’s not just ‘I want this and I want that.'”

“In Bordeaux, you will see that they had to clean up their houses — it’s a bottom-up approach to tourism. It’s a constant conversation — and the more transparent it is, the better. If there’s paranoia or honest skepticism, and people don’t understand why all of a sudden the tourism industry is changing their community with double-decker buses or duck boat tours — whatever it is — they’re going to say, ‘What’s going on here?'”

“That’s why tourism is difficult to discuss as an industry, because it’s not just building a factory where you have an environmental study. Tourism is is an octopus — often it’s all very piecemeal. So an economic decision here, a taxi license there, it looks like it’s all different things. But we don’t talk about tourism as a whole — it has to be looked at as an industry.”

“Las Vegas is a very well-run city based upon tourism. They have a monthly open public Tourism Council meeting. The mayor is there, the City Council is there, the Convention Authority is there, and the citizens are there — it’s just as important as the actual City Council. It’s not rocket science — you have open discussion, you have various plans or bills, and you discuss them.”

“Las Vegas is interesting because with the advent of really and truly global tourism, they lost their monopoly on high-end gambling — it went to China. So they, as a city — with all of the big rollers like Steve Wynn packing their tents up to go to Macau — the city, instead of saying, ‘Darn it!’ said, ‘Okay, we are going to refocus all of our energies — less on high-end gambling and more on conventions.'”

“They made this studied decision, they went through the whole process on the industry level and this was a very open decision. It was fun to watch it [this process] and they have an amazing tourism website in multiple languages, and that’s in contrast to our federal government.”

“The United States doesn’t automatically bring the public in [to the discussion] regarding tourism — just the industry. And it’s not that the industry is bad, per se, but the industry is not going to represent the community — it’s going to represent the industry. There’s a lot that is peculiar in particular about the United States that can make it difficult for communities to have a voice in own their development. We don’t accept that basic concept that tourism is an industry and that the government and the citizens have a role.”

“In the cities and states where they’ve been able to make changes, it’s usually because they have a wide net approach, where you get everybody in the community involved — the government as a political system and the people are both involved — the citizens, the artists, the musicians. Everybody needs to be involved.”

Regarding New Orleans, Ms. Becker shared one observation: “The one thing I’ve noticed — and I’ve only been here for 24 hours — there’s a concept in my book called the ‘sacrifice zone.’ Bourbon Street looks like your sacrifice zone.”

[In an interview with Miami’s WLRN, Ms. Becker described a “sacrifice zone” as “…the classic double-edged sword. When tourists love a place to death, it means that hoards of them come. They show very little respect for the place. They trample it. They leave garbage in their wake. They disrupt the culture of the place. They are destructive of the actual physical place and the daily rhythm of the place is gone. The examples are numerous. On a lot of beaches where it’s — people don’t even want to go there anymore. It’s all gone. There are a lot of wildlife places that are gone and it’s become what the industry calls a sacrifice zone where it’s been so trampled that the only people who want to go there anymore are tourists.”‘]

At the Bureau of Governmental Research‘s “Breakfast Briefing” featuring Mayor Mitch Landrieu as the featured speaker on April 3, 2013, I asked our Mayor the following question:

“Legal notices were recently published in the Times-Picayune regarding the taxation of food, beverages, and hotels in New Orleans similar to what was proposed for the Hospitality Zone in 2012. Will the Hospitality Zone be reintroduced during the 2013 legislative session?”

Mayor Landrieu replied simply, “Not in that form.”

I suggest that this exchange could instead have been an opportunity for facilitating transparency; unfortunately it is only one example of how the citizens of New Orleans all too frequently are the last to learn of such planned actions.

When the legislative bills were introduced shortly thereafter, one of the notices pertained to Senate Bill 242, which was approved by the House today, moving it one big step closer to allowing the New Orleans Convention and Visitors to levy an “optional assessment” tacking an additional 1.75% onto the hotel occupancy taxes. Only one-seventh of the monies collected have been promised (but not formally assigned within the the bill itself) for addressing infrastructure and public safety needs; the remaining six-sevenths of the funds are slated for aggressive tourism marketing and advertising.

Another of the notices related to House Bill 516, which was filed on behalf of the Convention Center and passed by the House on 5/22/13. It provides for  the creation of a riverfront “festival park”; the addition of “people mover”; and an sprawling project upriver of the Convention Center that will include new executive conference facilities, a privately-developed hotel, and a kitchen/restaurant facility. This bill also includes the now notorious proposal to redevelop or demolish the former World Trade Center building.

It is both anticipated and unfortunate that the general population of New Orleans — its citizens — will have no role or voice regarding any of these developments; these matters are simply decided over our heads and with little (if any) regard for the residents’ priorities or concerns.

Our city officials, the legislature, and our city’s citizens need begin working together in a way that transforms New Orleans for all — emulating the success of Bordeaux, France instead of following the missteps of Venice, Italy.

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