Last Tuesday, Mayor Ray Nagin and hospitality industry leaders announced that New Orleans had hosted a record 10.1 million visitors in 2004, a dramatic rise from the previous top number -- 8.55 million in 2003. Family travel to the city more than doubled in 2004 from the previous year, said the mayor.
These visitors are guided by the recently released Good Times Guide 2005, which touts this city's culture and cuisine. The booklet was created by the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, which is funded by the City of New Orleans and contributions from Harrah's New Orleans, as stipulated in the casino's lease with the city. Here's a section from the booklet discreetly describing Bourbon Street: "With its eclectic mix of music clubs and gentlemen's clubs, daiquiri bars and gay bars, Bourbon Street is the French Quarter's most famous nighttime row. The second- and third-story balconies that define the narrow street feel like floats passing in a Mardi Gras parade. Regardless of the time of year, the balconies' occupants indulge the illusion, dangling beads and other trinkets above the wandering crowd."
For Bourbon Street revelers, it has indeed become Mardi Gras all year long. The drinks, the beads and the flashing now take place 365 days a year. During Carnival and spring breaks, the activity goes into overdrive. That has increased with recent publicity from Playboy and the Girls Gone Wild videos. In fact, as University of New Orleans visiting professor Bridget Bordelon discovered, New Orleans is well-known for heavy drinking, public nudity and vice. Bordelon examined 331 movie images about New Orleans found in films released between 1985 and 2000, and found that "many film images of New Orleans are in direct contrast to images of New Orleans in official promotional videos." While official tourism materials generally highlight music, food, and celebration, New Orleans-based motion pictures, Bordelon found, "depict many images that are considered negative upon first glance" -- images of public nudity, vampires, cemeteries, rainy nights, Voodoo, crowded streets, abandoned houses, violence and prostitution.
In other words, despite well-done ads depicting local chefs and romantic walks along the river, many arrive here primed to experience the naughty side of New Orleans. Sometimes, their desires go beyond drinks and flashing to prostitutes and drugs. This is no secret to those who work along Bourbon Street ("Tourists Gone Wild," Feb. 1).
But such desires can lead visitors into dangerous situations, as Loyola University Professor Dee Wood Harper discovered in research he's done on crimes against tourists. In any city, visitors can be easy marks for local con men. The U.S. Department of Justice publication Crimes Against Tourists explains that tourists often carry lots of cash and expensive cameras, they're likely to be relaxed, and they are more prone to take risks while on vacation.
New Orleans cops do an admirable job watching for pickpockets and chasing away hustlers on Bourbon Street. But they can't patrol every inch of the French Quarter and adjacent neighborhoods. Harper concentrated his studies on armed robbery, which occurred, on average, at the rate of one a day for the years he studied. Most robberies happen between midnight and 6 a.m., he found. Many are simply crimes of opportunity, armed robbers meeting up with tourists who got lost walking back to their hotel.
Harper also recorded another phenomenon: a good share of tourists get robbed because they go outside the Quarter looking for something illicit -- usually prostitutes or drugs. Unwittingly, says Harper, those visitors "collaborated" in their own misfortune. "I'm not blaming the victim," Harper emphasizes. "But I do know that in many instances, tourists put themselves at risk, and then there's someone there to take advantage of them."
Considering the vast numbers of tourists in New Orleans on any given day, these robberies are relatively rare. But the phenomenon is common enough that the NOPD and local tourism promoters should consider some practical options:
• Tourist literature such as the Good Times Guide should include a gentle warning along these lines: New Orleanians pride themselves on their hospitality and friendliness. But this is an urban area, so please don't leave crowded, well-lit, tourist areas with people you don't know.
• Harper found that tourists, especially after a few drinks, often lost their sense of direction on the Vieux Carre streets. The city has Hospitality Rangers during the day; perhaps it should have some at night as well. There should also be an increased number of evening cab stands just off Bourbon Street.
• The Department of Justice notes that crimes against tourists are rarely prosecuted because victims seldom return to vacation spots to give testimony. The state of Hawaii has enacted a statute allowing crime victims to testify from their home via teleconferencing. Louisiana should do likewise. Currently, according to the UNO Hospitality Research Center, repeat visitors constitute nearly two-thirds of our tourists. That's quite an endorsement, and the city should take steps to protect that good will. Keeping visitors safe will keep them coming back.