Tourism Trap?

A proposed Acadiana tourism board sparks a round of infighting and could threaten New Orleans' piece of the hospitality pie.



State Rep. Sydnie Mae M. Durand, D-Parks, crushes an imaginary egg between the palms of her hands. Then both hands rise up, as if she's preparing for a double high-five.

"I'm gonna wipe egg all over their faces," she says with a slight country drawl. Durand, now in her final term in the House of Representatives, takes legislation seriously -- and personally. During the recent session, she filed a bill to create a tourism marketing board for central Acadiana parishes much like the successful New Orleans Tourism Marketing Board. Many in the region slammed the concept, and Durand is eager to prove them wrong.

The main thrust of Durand's proposed marketing commission is its message -- an advertising campaign that presents Lafayette as an alternative to New Orleans while the Crescent City struggles to rebuild. If tourists can't enjoy the thrills of New Orleans, the message goes, then Lafayette is open for business and is a mere two-hour drive away via I-10.

Hospitality leaders and lawmakers from New Orleans minced no words upon hearing the message.

"Just whack," is how one New Orleans lawmaker, who requested anonymity, described Durand's proposal. Rep. Charmaine Marchand, a Democrat from New Orleans, didn't like the implication, especially with Hurricane Katrina and the damage the storm caused still alive in everyone's mind. "That is bold," she says. "There is absolutely no municipality out there that can be a substitute for New Orleans."

Democratic Rep. Juan LaFonta, also of New Orleans, says the proposed marketing campaign portrays the wrong image, especially to countless Louisianans trying to put the pieces of their lives back together. "I don't want to sound off to the rest of the nation and tell them that New Orleans is not a viable place for tourism," he says. "My interpretation of this marketing campaign leaves me to be concerned."

Durand claims the underlying strategy is to help New Orleans get back on its feet. "New Orleans will always be the major destination in the state," she admits. "But if we can show them that a few miles down the interstate there is something just as exciting, we should do that."

Sandy Shilstone at the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, however, says Acadiana isn't trying anything new and she doubts it would help New Orleans transition back to pre-Katrina times. "We appreciate the help from the Acadiana parishes," Shilstone says, "but New Orleans is up and running."

Faced with significant opposition from her neighbors in Acadiana, Durand reintroduced her bill as a resolution and trimmed it to include only three of the original eight parishes in a watered-down version.

"When this thing gets started," Durand says while smearing the imaginary egg against the air, "they'll see what it is and they'll want to join."

That seems unlikely. Most Acadiana tourism directors and some lawmakers disavowed the comprehensive proposal, although legislators did approve the scaled-back resolution -- with no funding attached. Some like the regional approach in theory, but feel it already is being done on some levels, and getting everyone on the same page is easier said than done.

Some Cajun parishes fear Lafayette would get all the money and dominate the marketing agenda if Durand's idea takes off. Others just don't want to share the stage with other parishes. Still others believe certain aspects of the plan have merit, but as a whole it is flawed.

And that's before New Orleans tourism heavies weigh in.

"We think a regional approach is a great idea for them," says Steve Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOMCVB), which shares the lead in promoting New Orleans as a destination with the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. "The Acadiana experience is a great experience. Anything that brings tourists to Louisiana and is good for Louisiana we support."

The message of Acadiana being open and New Orleans being closed, however, might not fit the bill. "We're completely open and operating," Perry says. "Jazz Fest had a half-million people. This week marks the launch of three major conventions. The hospitality industry here is not only open, but it is thriving. The tourism experience is already back to normal."

Perry also points to Jackson Square, which received minimal damage, and the aquarium, which is stocked full of fish and open to visitors.

Still, Durand and others remain undeterred. They want to market Acadiana as an alternative to New Orleans during this period of rebuilding. But financial backing from the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism -- which answers to New Orleans native Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu -- has been lukewarm.

EVEN ON THE ROPES, DURAND'S PROPOS- al revealed the intricacies of Acadiana politics and dominates every discussion among Cajun tourism leaders. "Every time we get together, we end up talking about this," says Sarah Klumpp, director of the Jefferson Davis Parish Tourist Commission. She opposes the plan.

Freddie DeCourt, mayor pro tem of New Iberia and the catalyst behind the regional proposal, says regionalism is not a dirty word. He wants to tap into the steady stream of buses that travel to New Orleans to visit some of the same things that can be found in Acadiana: museums, antebellum homes, ghost stories, good food, indigenous music and culture.

"We need a way to link up by interest and locale," he says. "While this transition is going on, we promote New Orleans as a day trip to people making long visits and when [New Orleans is] up and running again, we will become the day trip."

Durand's legislation would have created the Central Acadiana Tourism Development Commission on the state level. It included Acadia, Iberia, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, St. Mary, St. Martin, St. Landry and Vermilion parishes. Eight members selected from the region would serve as unpaid advisors, although they would have had the authority to sign contracts on behalf of the region.

A fiscal analysis conducted by the Legislative Fiscal Office predicted the new board -- which would have operated under the Departure of Culture, Recreation and Tourism and required office personnel and administrative and operational expenses -- would cost taxpayers nearly $1 million over the next five years.

That was only one of the problems facing the bill. It had not been properly advertised in all of the area's official journals, as required by law. In response, Durand filed a non-binding resolution that has no legal weight, but she vows that it will be enforced. When the measure came up on the House floor for debate, several parishes were amended out of the measure until the name had to be changed to the Tri-Parish Tourism Development Advisory Commission and included only the parishes of Lafayette, Iberia and St. Martin.

DeCourt is still pleased despite the significant changes. "It's a start," he says.

Any successful marketing campaign starts with money, so Durand turned to Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. "He told me they would help fund this marketing campaign," she says.

Angelle Davis, secretary of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, says her boss never committed any funding to the drive and that the department is largely focused on its national marketing campaign to revive New Orleans. "We have agreed to work with her on this, though," Davis says, adding cooperative opportunities are available where the state would pay a portion of marketing costs.

Durand smiles wryly at the news. "I guess that's because [Landrieu] didn't get elected [mayor of New Orleans]," she says with a laugh and a nudge. "We'll just have to do it on our own." Durand was already considering using some of the local hotel-motel tax money from each parish, which is traditionally used for tourism needs.

Gwen Hanks, executive director of the Acadia Parish Tourist Commission, says her group already has to battle its police jury for its share of the hotel-motel tax, and creating a regional consortium that draws from those monies would be a replication and a headache.

"I can read between the lines," Hanks says. "We're already the red-headed stepchild. The police juries [or parish councils] own us. We can't make many decisions without them. And the grant funding has dried up due to the problems from the storms."

Gerald Breaux, director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau, never had the impression that parish dollars would be needed for the commission or campaign, but supports the creation of a regional board -- no matter the size -- if it boosts visitor numbers and doesn't drain local accounts. Breaux thinks it's a smart strategy on paper because approximately 60 percent of tourists going to Acadiana are on their way to New Orleans, so the reverse plan just might work.

"If this will allow us to bring in more money to Lafayette, then open up the bank and let it come in," he says.

As for all the buzz around regional approaches and Acadiana's problems with it, New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation's Shilstone says it is difficult for her to sympathize. After all, visitor spending accounts for a whopping 35 percent of New Orleans' entire general fund, so there's no need to go looking for partners. "It is the brand," she says. "We only market New Orleans."

OPPOSITION FROM THE NEW ORLEANS area could impede the idea's progress a bit, but division among Cajun lawmakers is fatal.

Mickey Frith, a Vermilion Parish Democrat who chairs the Acadiana Delegation, says it is "extremely hard" to get the region's parishes together on any issue, even if there are financial implications at stake. "Everyone is too proud," he says.

Klumpp agrees and says the outlying parishes worry that a collective strategy will result in Lafayette overshadowing them. "That was one of our major concerns," she says. "We don't want to lose our identities."

Rep. Eric LaFleur, a Democrat from Evangeline Parish who supports Durand's concept, says Lafayette taking over the show is still an ever-present theme when the parishes get together for discussions. It's important to remember that there is more to the region than just that one parish, he adds. "The Cajun attractions aren't in Lafayette," LaFleur says. "The Mardi Gras events that everyone wants to see aren't in Lafayette. There are great things all over Acadiana."

Another reason some parishes reject the regional approach is because there is a wealth of regional cooperation already going on, according to Breaux. For instance, Acadiana's cities and municipalities often make media buys as a group. "We all support each other when needed," Breaux says. "Tourism doesn't know where one parish line begins and another ends."

Which is why Davis says the proposed board would be a "duplication of services." The state already has a tourism commission and nearly every parish has one as well. Hanks, who personally lobbied against the original Durand bill, agrees. "Why do we need another board?" she asks. "When a sister parish needs something, we just do it. We don't need another layer of bureaucracy telling us how to do it. We already do it on our own."

Thus, while and industry flaks preach regionalism, Acadiana parishes don't look as though they'll be converted anytime soon. Acadia Parish's Hanks sums up the outlying parishes' stance with one sentence:

"Just leave us alone," she says.

Tourism officials in New Orleans no doubt applaud -- and echo -- that sentiment.

In Acadiana, the living history museum in Vermillionville - has re-enactors who perform daily. - LOUISIANA OFFICE OF TOURISM
St. Louis Cathedral on New Orleans' Jackson Square is a - testament to the history and rich culture of the city and - stands amid an active center of tourism. - CARL PURCELL/NEW ORLEANS METROPOLITAN CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU
  • Carl Purcell/New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau
  • St. Louis Cathedral on New Orleans' Jackson Square is a testament to the history and rich culture of the city and stands amid an active center of tourism.

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