There’s an old saying that he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Well, here in New Orleans, the tourism industry is a double-edged sword. Ever since the first oil-and-gas crash of the 1980s and especially since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, the Crescent City has depended on the kindness — and the tourism dollars — of strangers from all over the world to pay its bills. That’s understandable — you play the cards you’ve been dealt, and with the cradle of jazz (not to mention zydeco and Cajun music), the kitchen that cranks out America’s best regional dishes, and its architectural wonders like the French Quarter and the Garden District, New Orleans has long offered visitors an experience that can’t be matched elsewhere.
But like I said, tourism can be a double-edged sword. For one thing, jobs in the industry don’t pay as well as the blue-collar jobs that New Orleans has lost. But beyond that, something important has changed in the nearly eight years since Katrina. Especially in the French Quarter, the desire for more and more cash has driven standards lower and lower. The quest to attract a younger crowd, with their alcohol-fueled spending binges, has caused city officials to forget all about code enforcement. Fear of crime is on the rise. So is noise pollution and other hassles of overcrowding. Simply put, the more tourists that New Orleans crams in today, the fewer who say they’re eager to come back tomorrow.
Recently, the hospitality industry commissioned a new Master Plan, and a major part of that effort was hiring the Boston Consulting Group to survey the current tourism situation. Some of what that study uncovered was alarming. New Orleans has few repeat visitors — only 16 percent of those surveyed have come more than once. It said explicitly that “Crime…[is a barrier] to success.” Most importantly, the consultants said this: “The French Quarter needs attention. Fixing the basics – safety and cleanliness – is critical. … code enforcement has been lax and resources for maintenance and preservation have been inadequate.”
A couple of weeks ago, the hotel and motel industry, working hand-in-glove with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, launched an aggressive push in Baton Rouge to win approval to impose a new tax on their guests, which would be mainly paid by tourists. The plan would raise at least $12 million, although proposed changes could make it even more. Remarkably, not one dollar from this new tax — which would tack at least 1.5 percent onto the room bills of our out-of-town visitors — would help the city address its rampant problems in the tourism district of high crime, out-of-control rowdyism, excessive noise, or other threats to health and safety.
Instead, the bill establishes a $12 million slush fund that the special interest hospitality industry would use for ads and TV commercials to woo three to four million more visitors. Two lawmakers from New Orleans — Sen. Edwin Murray and Rep. Walt Leger — without consulting their constituents or those affected by the bill have sponsored the legislation known as Senate Bill 242 (or SB 242) — and in typical Baton Rouge fashion the measure is racing toward approval with little public input or debate. I — along with several groups of concerned citizens — am here today to yell, “Stop!”
Just pause and think about this for a minute. When the vast majority of tourists who come now to New Orleans report that they aren’t coming back — and presumably going home and telling their friends and neighbors about the city’s ongoing problems — the marketing campaign is an ill-conceived short-term fix that will only finish the job of converting our beloved New Orleans from a place that families once enjoyed to visit and live in to an out-of-control party zone — Cancun North — where responsible tourists and locals will be stepping over passed-out college kids just to get back to their (now more expensive) hotel room. The long-term effect will be to destroy what’s left of the city’s drawing power. I think the citizens of New Orleans and their elected leaders should get to decide what type of visitors they want to encourage to come and the types they don’t.
And let me be clear: The problems with this bill, SB 242, go beyond its deeply flawed premise. The plan is lacking in any accountability or transparency. Remarkably, all of the funds raised by this new tax on visitors to New Orleans go directly to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which can spend the $12 million or more any way they see fit. The bill doesn’t even require disclosure of the tax on hotel bills, so visitors to New Orleans will be paying into this slush fund without even knowing it. The bureau is an outfit that already gets $19 million for marketing from existing taxes, the city and other sources — yet so far it has demonstrated little transparency on how that money is spent. Citizens have faced difficulty in simply viewing the bureau’s tax filings — as required by law — and the bureau spends hundreds if thousands of dollars on a completely opaque separate entity that owns its welcome center. There is absolutely nothing in SB 242 that guarantees that New Orleans residents, let alone the tourists who will be paying into the fund, will know where the new money is going. The only thing for certain is that the money won’t add the things that New Orleans really needs right now — more cops on the corner, more code inspectors, more quality of life officers and wider and safer sidewalks. It is shocking that New Orleans has no Tourism management plan or infrastructure to mitigate the effects of rampant uncontrolled tourism.
It really is incredible that our elected leaders really think they can get away with these bad government shenanigans. Who ever heard of the government giving a private organization the right to levy a tax? This is a sneak attack by our own leaders against the citizens this bill will impact. No public hearings or meetings were held with the stakeholders about this bill. None of the residents of the local tourism destinations (French Quarter, Marigny, or Garden District) were consulted. No money or discussion of how these hoteliers will mitigate the impact of the three to four million additional visitors these neighborhoods will have to accommodate. It’s time to put the brakes on this runaway freight train called SB 242. Let’s go back to the drawing board. Let’s begin a new conversation that will include citizens — the New Orleans taxpayers who actually make their homes in the tourist districts and elsewhere — and draft a new plan that will address the problems that exist now in our neighborhoods, and will only get worse with more visitors but fewer services. The Convention and Visitors Bureau has argued that room taxes in New Orleans are lower than what is charged in other cities; if that’s the case, then let’s work together to fund a real plan to make the Big Easy a better experience now for our cherished guests and for those of us who continue to call New Orleans home. Unlike the bass-ackwards plan now roaring through Baton Rouge, that would be a win for everyone.
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