Monday, July 20, 2015

Ban tourism

The stock "economic overview" boilerplate in Louisiana typically celebrates two major industries; petrochemical extraction and tourism. (Lately we also like to write a lot about the grifter economy; i.e. the "entrepreneurial scene" but let's stick with the devils we know best for now.) There is more that goes on here than just those things but there's a disproportionate amount of money and political investment in those so they get the most press.

It's only taken us the better part of a century to fully understand the Faustian bargain with the petrochemical sector. To merely say it has created jobs and spurred growth would be a gross understatement. Oil and gas has built fortunes, sustained families and, in more better political times, been made to fund a host of public services from health care to transportation to education.  Oil money built downtown New Orleans as we know it today, including our city's most truly "iconic" structure.

And yet all of this has come with a terrible cost in environmental damage, heightened cancer rates, ruined fisheries, and, eventually, the entire southeast portion of the state itself, if nothing is done in time. (Spoiler: Nothing will be done in time.)

Our media and politics only began to take the negative externalities of oil and gas seriously after the big bust in the early 80s. It was at this time that tourism began to be touted as a "clean" alternative. There had always been tourism in New Orleans, of course, but this was the moment the consensus moved toward tourism on an industrial scale and that industry's utter dominance of the local economy.  We're only now beginning to take seriously the negative impacts of this.

Here's an op-ed by Elizabeth Becker published in Sunday's New York Times. Becker has written about the struggles of "destination cities" all over the world and the various policy responses. Her conclusions are a bit elitist for my liking. She seems primarily concerned about "boorish" middle class travelers making too much noise in the world's "beloved places."  But her observations and research are well worth noting.
Barcelona, a city of 1.6 million that receives over seven million people a year, represents the turn toward regulation. Taxis and tour buses have taken over entire neighborhoods, while souvenir shops and bars have displaced pharmacies and greengrocers.

The city’s mayor, Ada Colau, 41, who was elected in May, announced a one-year ban on new tourist accommodation citing the swarms of students who have all but taken over the Ciutat Vella, or Old City, of Barcelona. Last August, hundreds of residents erupted in spontaneous protest after images of three Italian tourists wandering naked in the neighborhood of La Barceloneta were circulated online. Her greatest worry, Ms. Colau says, is Barcelona’s turning into Venice.
Here's another article about the Barcelona reaction.  Residents there are actually upset about more than just uncouth naked wanderers
A survey for the Exceltur tourist group revealed that there are now twice as many beds available in tourist apartments – some 138,000 – as there are in hotels.

Tourist flats offer a more attractive and economic deal to visitors, and their owners can expect rents at least 125% higher than they would receive from long-term tenants. While many are let through large online organisations, such as Airbnb, others are offered by homeowners trying to make ends meet during Spain’s prolonged recession.

Tourists spend 25m euros (£18m) a day in the city, and the industry accounts for 15% of Barcelona’s GDP and about 120,000 jobs. No one wants to drive tourists away, says Colau, but if the city becomes a “theme park” people will stop coming.

Ciutat Vella, the heart of old Barcelona and one of the most popular districts among tourists, has lost 13,000 residents in eight years, driven out by high rents and the relentless noise of tourism. Many areas, such as the famous Las Ramblas or the area around the Sagrada Familia church, are in effect no-go areas for residents.
What we're seeing in "destination cities" around the world, and here at home in New Orleans, is the tourism industry  hollowing out very cultural attractions it has marketed to travelers
A 2004 study published by Tulane University sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham in Urban Studies indicates it may be wrong to blame tourists alone. The transformation of a city into a place that caters to tourists over residents is also the result of targeted investments by developers, often supported by city governments.

Cities seeking more economic development partner with these investors to become more attractive to tourists and upper-income residents by building hotels, entertainment venues and upscale housing. Suddenly, traditionally working- and middle-class neighborhoods are inaccessible to residents of modest means.

Gotham’s study uses New Orleans’s French Quarter as a case study. In the 1980s, for instance, the construction of upscale hotels in the French Quarter provided investors with an incentive to renovate properties on the district’s Canal Street and transform Bourbon Street bars into upscale music venues. The resultant expansion of tourist activity in the area would lead to a 50 percent increase in rents on the street between the mid-1990s and 2002, with some properties more than doubling their rental price.

Spurred on by an expanding tourism industry dependent on “an image of nostalgia,” Gotham writes, investors bought and renovated properties to reflect a notion of the French Quarter as a neighborhood of “red-brick town houses, cast-iron galleries over public sidewalks and enchanting backyard gardens.” By the early 2000s, this process left “few unrehabilitated residential houses for sale,” in a neighborhood where “the asking price for single-family homes is far beyond the means of low-income-housing tenants.”

Moreover, writes Gotham, the demographic changes caused by skyrocketing rents and increasing tourism coincided “with a dramatic restructuring of the commercial base of the neighborhood.” Between 1950 and 1999, he reports, resident-oriented businesses like “barbers, department stores, shoe shops, small groceries and laundry services” decreased by 15 percent, while tourist businesses like T-shirt shops increased by 32 percent.

“Gentrification and tourism,” concludes Gotham, “are largely driven by mega-sized financial firms and entertainment corporations who have formed new institutional connections with traditional city boosters (chambers of commerce, city governments, service industries) to market cities and their neighborhoods.”
Yesterday we talked about the NOligarchs who buy sell and trade real estate with the help of public financing and policymakers. They are creating a real life version of Dizneylandrieu.  All of those investments, as well as the growing Airbnb plague, are driven by tourism.  Just as petrochemical extraction has left us with an uninhabitable and disappearing coast, tourism is leaving us with a husk of a city where nobody actually lives. 

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