The Complicated Relationship Of Tourism With The City Of New Orleans

Tourism is one of the most lucrative industries for a city, but it also presents numerous issues to those who call the city their home.

Having had the unfortunate circumstance of spending the majority of my college experience in a global pandemic, my friends and I had never had the stereotypical spring break, a rite of passage with the undergrad experience. On an impulsive whim, one morning in February, three of my closest friends and I booked round trip tickets to Louis Armstrong Airport and three nights in an 1800s Creole-French colonial Airbnb.

Leading up to our departure, I made casual conversations with people who inquired about my travel plans. The most common reactions included narratives along the lines of, “Be careful, there’s a lot of crime,” and “New Orleans is a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.” I found these reactions quite interesting, and they caused me to view the city with a more critical eye.

tourism in new orleans
Photo by Kristina Volgenau on Unsplash

Arriving in New Orleans, we were greeted with clear skies, a hot sun, and the long smooth drawl of the locals. Time seemed to move slower there, and I, aware of my naïvete, had trouble conceptualizing how a city with so much charm could possibly uphold the reputation I had encountered.

The locally despised tourist culture became quickly apparent. Any local who we had the pleasure of interacting with for more than two minutes would quickly warn us to stay away from The French Quarter and the traditional crawlings of out-of-town visitors. Instead, they provided lesser-known recommendations and assured us it would be much more fun. The temptation and fame of Bourbon prevailed, however, my friends and I found ourselves on the trolley by 6 p.m. the next day, anticipating a night of unprecedented adventure.

Although I will say my experience on Bourbon Street was fun, I can see why the circumstances could quickly go south. Unhinged tourists, drunk out of their minds, with an unlimited supply of alcohol in every form imaginable. Combined with loud music and encouragement to let loose, things are bound to get out of hand.

For anyone who hasn’t been to New Orleans, the city itself is sprawling, not consisting of high rises and downtown blocks, rather, it is made up of long strips of old buildings, back alleys, and intertwining roads. The French Quarter – the most notorious tourist spot – contains the traditional French-style architecture, alongside tourist attractions such as famous cafés and restaurants, souvenir shops, and of course, Bourbon Street. Literally chock full of clubs, bars, live music, quick bites, and strip clubs; Bourbon Street is the culmination of tourist party culture.

Whenever I visit new locations that are famous for tourism, I often wonder about the relationship between locals and the industry their city ultimately relies on. Most of the locals I interacted with on this trip: the woman at the gelato shop, the waiter at Jaques Imo’s restaurant, the DJ at the karaoke bar, all seemed to share a distaste for the sort of people. They advised us to check out lesser known areas such as Frenchman Street.

tourism in new orleans
Photo by Nathan Bingle on Unsplash

Tourism as an industry is incredibly controversial, although it is the backbone of many destinations’ economies, especially poorer areas, it can easily be exploited and draw in unwanted visitors, spoiling the lived experience of locals. To learn more about how the people of New Orleans genuinely felt about the French Quarter, I turned to several Reddit threads on the topic of tourism in the area. One user noted the hypocrisy in locals’ detest towards Bourbon Street, whereas once it acted as a container for tourists, locals’ recommendations to other areas simultaneously drew the tourist crowd out from their French Quarter and into the streets,

“I don’t hate bourbon street. I’m glad for it. ‘That Street’ segregates the things I hate most in commercial tourism. If we didn’t have it, that hateful repacked commercial ‘culture’ would spill over into the other places that I do love. It keeps the bad ole tourists (that drive our economy) out of our beloved Uptown, Marigny, and Warehouse Scene. Or does it?… Don’t you remember all of those out of town friends, past college pals, and random internet strangers you shared our city with? Guess what: your recommendations were good ones. The people who visited never took that return ticket home. They bought our houses, our art galleries, and our culture.”

After searching around on some more threads, I began to identify that most locals didn’t have a problem with tourists as long as they came, spent their money, and left. Rather, a larger issue stemmed from those who were once tourists and then moved to the city with the perspective they had garnered as a tourist. “You have this large group of people who have a view of the city that’s drastically different from what it is and don’t have their together. So they move here on a whim, expect things to be like they are ‘at home,’ and when they’re not, they get annoyed. When they get annoyed they want to make things like it was back ‘home.’ So now you have this loop of ‘I want to move to New Orleans for the culture…I don’t like the culture…let’s change the culture.’ Those are the people we scoff at,” one user wrote.

tourism in new orleans
Photo by NICO BHLR on Unsplash

In doing some historical research, I discovered that the city of New Orleans never wanted to rely on tourism as its main generator of income. According to an article by The Tennessean, the first Black mayor of New Orleans, Dutch Morial, had suspicions of the industry, “Dutch Morial decried the downside of it: low wages, lack of advancement and the idea that this is a dead end that limits upwards mobility,” said historian J. Mark Souther.

Today, tourism continues to be a source of income majorly relied on by the city, especially post Hurricane Katrina. In his article, The Disneyfication of New Orleans: The French Quarter as Facade in a Divided City, Souther writes, “New Orleans is relying once again on tourism — the very economic development strategy that magnified the social disaster of Katrina — at a time when media images of violent crime and environmental ruin have diminished tourism’s potential boon to recovery. Yet city leaders continue to cultivate the French Quarter facade.”

The relationship between New Orleans and its both problematic and necessary reliance on tourism is a complicated one. In any muddled situation, the best role one can take as a traveler and in many cases, tourist, is to do the due diligence and research the history of the destinations. Being an educated, respectful, and intentional consumer means all the difference to both the city and its locals.

Delaney Beaudoin

Content Creator & FB Manager

Having grown up in a non-traditional family of intersecting identities, Delaney takes pride in her blank-slate, open-minded perception of the world. Her interests in writing, politics, and travel converge perfectly to fuel her intense passion for journalism and the pursuit of truth in modern media. Delaney values her tendency towards impulsivity and loves the unprecedented circumstances that come with traveling.

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