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MaC-Notes: Is this really the true path of a tourism dollar?

NoWill_PathofaTourismDollar_092415_v5-01-556x1024At first, I thought this tourism propaganda was humorous. Not satirical humor, but the out-of-touch-with-reality type. Now, it’s disgust that it engenders. I’d like you to consider being disgusted too. Seriously, look closely and consider feeling enough profound disapproval that you’ll decide to act on your revulsion.

I argued last week that there’s no actual “war on our culture,” and that the real battle is recognizing where we fall short respecting and showing meaningful support of the expressions that define our community’s identity. So, why devote energy to a silly graphic created by our Convention and Visitor’s Bureau?

Because, quite simply, a tourism-centric view that only sees culture as a commodity does nothing to move us forward as a community.

Yes, I am aware that some in that industry are deeply devoted to sharing their passion for New Orleans culture, history and arts. Some do their best to support the culture-workers who make an effort to profit from tourism. But the well-being of our community is the priority, and that includes conserving our cultural expressions. Sorry, fake parades in hotel ballroom don’t really count.

Mostly, however, efforts by our city’s leadership and destination management companies who cater to conference and convention groups to organize culture, view it as an extension of the service industry. The portrayal of our culture in this CVB graphic, like much of their imagery, appropriates our unique cityscape and reduces it to superficial symbols. This imagery and how it is presented glosses over our complex, hierarchical social organization, which, despite an inherent diversity responsible for our most celebrated traditions, is directly related to our income inequality, which is higher than any other city in the country with a population over 250k.

In this light, the audacious “path-of-a-tourism-dollar” anecdotes (here’s a new summer version) not only imply that tourism is responsible for our “prosperity,” but patronizes visitors by praising their integral role in our success. The message, besides being presumptuous about what locals find important, is that our quirky and exotic city is very user-friendly. If you pay for these services, mostly with tips it seems, you not only “fit in” and live like locals, the economic ripple you make sends a t-shirt shop owner’s kid to our most expensive private schools, allows pedi-cab drivers treat themselves to pizza and lets trombone-players shop on Magazine Street. Now, pat yourself on the back and raise a Pimm’s cup to your generosity.

Yes, obviously this is all to make our culture easier to sell, but traditions have far greater value. Besides reinforcing what our citizenry agrees is important, they give power to speak because of the knowledge they transmit. This is why stopping the marginalization of our culture-bearers is important. Putting culture up for sale diminishes creativity until there’s no authentic culture at all. Profiting from the tourism industry means setting the terms by which it profits from us.

No it’s not easy. Even a new survey offered by our Office of Cultural Economy lists entertainment as a “Cultural Sector.” The “Plan for the 21st Century,” affectionately called the “Master Plan,” is currently up for revisions. In the last round of changes, note the conspicuous lack of musicians and traditional culture bearers in the “Working Groups,” as well as the presence of virtually everyone who has spoken out against live music over the past few years.
For the “new-New Orleans” to be about more than better shopping, we need to demand the higher level of stakeholder involvement that groups like MaCCNO are working towards. We need to curb gentrification and make affordable housing a priority to keep the creators of culture in the fabric of our neighborhoods. If we work together, hopefully, our efforts to alleviate pressures on our indigenous expressions can result in a path of tourism-dollars that illustrates real benefit to our infrastructure, education system and our personal safety, not just a bump in purchasing power.

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at evan@nolavie.com.