Tour Groups, Church, State, and the Battle for Historic Site Right-of-Way

Walking tours are a familiar sight and sound to anyone who spends time in the French Quarter. Tour guides tell visitors about New Orleans history, explain the difference between a Creole cottage and a shotgun house, share legends about vampires and ghosts, and even remind tourists to venture away from Bourbon Street and Jackson Square.

“That’s one of my favorite parts of the job, is getting people to get out of the Quarter and engage with the rest of the city,” said tour guide Taylor Gaines, who works for Witches Brew Tours. But Gaines and other tour guides say even as tourism bounces back, their livelihood is potentially threatened by proposed changes in City ordinances that would, among other things, reduce the maximum allowed tour group size from 28 to 14.

The proposed ordinance changes come after resident complaints of noise, overcrowded streets and sidewalks, and even trespassing. Guides counter that their customers are kept safe by being in groups, and get to enjoy a nocturnal French Quarter activity that doesn’t involve heavy drinking and is open to families with kids. And, they say, having tour groups on the street helps deter nighttime crime.

It isn’t the first time the City has moved to put restrictions on tours. Tour guides have been required to have City permits for at least 50 years, and they’re also obligated to follow various rules instituted more recently, like keeping 50 feet away from other tours, ending tours by 10 p.m., and not using equipment to amplify their voices.

But the potential changes come amid citywide debates about uses of public space, from arguments over outdoor music and pop-up food vendors to restrictions on the sizes and locations of Mardi Gras parades and traditional second lines. These debates often leave residents and business owners feeling unheard by City leaders. Jordan Hobson, the general manager at Witches Brew, said that officials appeared to have made decisions about how the tour law should be changed before sitting down with anyone in the industry. “[They] really didn’t even ask us if we would be willing to work with them on a solution before saying, here are our proposed ordinance changes,” she said. (The Ground Transportation Bureau [GTB], which hosted recent Zoom meetings about the proposal, didn’t respond to email inquiries. Nor did Councilmember Freddie King III, whose district includes the Quarter.)

The tour issues also highlight continued tensions over gentrification and tourism in the French Quarter and nearby neighborhoods like the Marigny and Treme. A recent analysis of census stats by The Data Center found that both neighborhoods lost population between 2010 and 2020, “likely as historic shotgun doubles were converted to singles” in the Marigny and “suggesting that increasingly homes in the French Quarter are used seasonally.”

Many of the current restrictions on walking tours came about in the early 2000s, when then-Councilmember Jackie Clarkson pushed to “clean up” the French Quarter, as The Times-Picayune reported at the time. It was one of many occasions where the City, often in tandem with some business and property owners, would try to crack down on undesirable activities, from sex work and street performance to unlicensed vending and simply living on the street.

“This is our 10th year,” said Ethan Ellestad, executive director of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, “and we’re still dealing with things that were issues in the ‘90s, in the ‘60s, in Storyville.”

But it was in 2003 that the City Council passed the rules imposing the 10 p.m. cutoff, the 28-person cap, a ban on soliciting tour customers on the street, and the prohibition on amplified sound, amid resident complaints about noise and crowds. Some came with the growth of late-night, supernatural-themed tours, a relatively new addition to the city’s tour lineup. Clarkson had originally proposed a 15-person cap at the time, but switched to the 28-person limit after complaints from tour guides.

Various courts subsequently upheld the rules and the tour guide licensing requirement, which today requires would-be guides to pass background checks and a knowledge test, under various legal challenges.

Some residents say those rules still aren’t enough. “VCPORA is still studying the specific proposed changes, but we applaud the effort to find much-needed, common sense solutions to the significant burden imposed by the great proliferation of walking tours in the landmark Vieux Carré,” said Erin Holmes, executive director of Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates, in a statement emailed to ANTIGRAVITY. “Our members love visitors’ interest in our unique history, but city leaders should understand that these tours are, nightly, invading otherwise quiet residential blocks of the French Quarter – bringing problems of noise, crowds who block our sidewalks and homes, and even additional wear and tear on our historic building [sp] and infrastructure. Changes are needed.”

And in a March 9, City-sponsored Zoom meeting to gather comments from French Quarter and Garden District residents, several residents expressed their frustrations with the tours (tour industry representatives also spoke and commented via Zoom text chat despite initially being told comments would be limited to resident perspectives). While at least one anonymous commenter said they “rarely have experienced a problem” with tours, others spoke of tour guides speaking disruptively loud, tours blocking traffic, and groups exceeding the existing size limit. Some mentioned tourists putting their feet on buildings and using their walls to snuff out cigarettes.

“I had to call the cops on one person because they kept on tapping on my door—on my window—and they would not stop,” said one resident who lives near the LaLaurie Mansion on Royal Street, a common tour highlight, in the meeting. “The tour guide would do nothing about it.”

Eric Spinrad of NOLA Tour Guy guides a tour through St. Louis Cemetery No. 3

Still, it’s unclear at best whether the proposed tour size cap would address these resident concerns. Frank Perez, a French Quarter resident who owns a tour booking company and teaches a tour guiding class at Loyola University, says it’s likely some tour companies would simply run more frequent, smaller tours if the limit is cut. That means guides and companies they work for would make less money—since guides would get fewer tips and potentially lower pay, while companies would need to pay two guides to handle the same number of tourists—but the same number of tourists would remain on the street. “They’re just going to put double the number of people out,” said Perez, who also ran last year to represent District C in the City Council. “It’s not really going to achieve anything.”

Perez and others in the industry say the City could first do more to enforce its existing rules. (Perez also suggests more rigorous licensing requirements). Luke Siddall, who is the interim manager of the New Orleans Association of Tour Guides & Companies and a tour manager at French Quarter Phantoms, says many of the issues with disruptive tours come from a few “bad eggs” in the industry. But, he said, in his experience, GTB officials are seldom out on the streets to enforce the laws.

Yet when the City has tried to enforce rules on tour guide behavior, it’s seemingly struggled to do so effectively and without enforcement officials themselves breaking the law. In 1996, the Taxicab Bureau, GTB’s predecessor, sent “undercover agents” on a tour led by a controversial guide, according to a Times-Picayune report at the time. Hearing allegations of his rude behavior to the agents and “sexual remarks” on the tour, as well as claims of harassment directed at his competitors, the agency attempted to revoke the guide’s license. But after his lawyers argued the Taxicab Bureau didn’t cite the right law, he was able to obtain a restraining order and stay in business.

And in 2004, The Times-Picayune reported that the City Attorney’s Office dismissed a case against a guide who was handcuffed and hauled to jail for allegedly leading a tour with more than 28 people. A tour company owner told the paper that officials sometimes halted tours for having too many people after passersby simply stopped to listen to his guides’ stories.

More recently, in 2013, the Bureau attempted a crackdown on nuisance tours after the LaLaurie Mansion was featured on American Horror Story, prompting an increase of tour traffic in its immediate neighborhood. But guides complained of “harassment” and arbitrary ticketing, as the New Orleans Advocate then reported. The issue came to a head when Taxicab Bureau inspector Wilton Joiner was arrested for battery after being caught on video roughly overpowering a tour guide who refused to turn over her license when, she said, he falsely accused her of operating too close to another tour. He was later fired and found guilty of simple battery. Another inspector also ultimately pleaded guilty to that charge after pepper-spraying a taxi driver that same year. Taxicab Bureau Director Malachi Hull, who was present when Joiner accosted the tour guide, was fired in 2014, and a scathing report from the City Office of Inspector General pointed to his “gross negligence and neglect of duty.” Numerous other cases against tour guides and taxi drivers were dismissed in late 2013 amid the controversy, and the bureau’s inspectors were stripped of their handcuffs and pepper spray. (They had previously been banned from carrying guns and conducting undercover investigations, according to Advocate reports at the time).

Since that era, guides and residents say there’s been little on-the-ground enforcement. And, one GTB official who spoke in the March Zoom meeting told listeners, some tour issues are outside the agency’s purview: Issues with tourists trespassing on people’s property, for instance, would have to be referred to the New Orleans Police Department. Perez said he’s also been told the GTB has no jurisdiction over tour guides who operate with no license at all. And for decades, politicians and the public have questioned whether it makes sense to have police enforce rules about tours rather than addressing more serious crime.

If another provision in the proposed ordinance makes it to law, guides might have more to fear from any future overzealous enforcement. The proposal, as shared in the Zoom meeting, would require that “permitted tour guides who are arrested shall be suspended until a conviction or dismissal is rendered.” That would also seem to incentivize tour guides facing charges to quickly resolve them—which often means a guilty plea—rather than challenge them, already an issue in our criminal legal system.

As of now, it’s unclear if or when the proposed ordinance will make it before the City Council, and observers are wary of predicting how recently elected councilmembers would vote on such a bill. In the March meeting, officials indicated they’d like to hold further public discussions—something Perez said likely should have happened earlier in the process. “The tension between residents and tour guides is nothing new,” said Perez. “What is new is this shortsighted vision to come up with just cutting the numbers in half with no input from the community. I mean, they came up with that proposal and sought input after what they should have done was gotten everybody together, had a series of meetings, and said, this is the problem—what are your ideas to fix it?”

At the same time, a tour industry group is challenging new restrictions on tours in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, called the city’s oldest still-existing cemetery, that other tour leaders say effectively gives a single company a monopoly over tours at the site. They argue New Orleans Archdiocesan Cemeteries (NOAC), the Catholic Church-affiliated organization that runs the site, is violating federal antitrust law, state cemetery laws, and longstanding customs by limiting access—allegations NOAC has denied in court.

It’s another dispute between tour guides, who say their right to make a living in what’s effectively a public space is facing unprecedented restrictions, and those who seem to see their presence as impermissibly disruptive.

NOAC has since 2015 only allowed visitors access to St. Louis No. 1 if they were family members of people buried there or willing to pay a $20 fee, according to court documents. The organization has said it restricts entry since the cemetery, which hosts the burial site of voodoo leader Marie Laveau and a pyramid tomb owned by Nicolas Cage, is the frequent target of vandalism.

For a few years, tour guides could sign up with NOAC to give tours on certain days, collecting $20 from each walk-up tourist and keeping $15 and giving $5 back to NOAC, said Hobson, who is also the interim manager of the Association of Cemetery Tour Guides and Companies, the plaintiff in the suit. “So obviously this was a huge source of income for a lot of tour guides,” she said.

But the cemetery was closed entirely for much of the pandemic, and at some point, according to a court ruling, NOAC awarded a contract to a company called Cemetery Tours NOLA, giving it the right to “manage tours” in the cemetery. Other tour companies could “escort tour groups, but may not offer commentary,” the judge wrote in summarizing the deal in the ruling. Nearby St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 remains closed to tours entirely. The exclusive deal effectively put some other tour operators that specialized in tours of the St. Louis cemeteries out of business, said David Nance, who represents the tour association. And, tour guides say, it effectively limits the range of perspectives tourists can hear about the cemetery and the diverse group of New Orleanians buried there.

“It’s not like tour guides can just immediately know everything about some other aspect of the city, right?” Nance said. “You’ve got tour guides that do a lot of things, but you’ve got tour guides that very specifically focused on cemeteries and those two cemeteries, because [they’re] where the tourists are.”

Cemetery Tours NOLA is run by Michael and Christopher Valentino, whose family business owns a number of hotels in the French Quarter area, according to state records.

So far, a federal judge has ruled against the tour association, declining to issue an injunction denying Cemetery Tours NOLA exclusive access to the cemetery. The tour association appealed that ruling in late February. (Attorneys for NOAC and Cemetery Tours NOLA didn’t respond to email inquiries.)

It appears likely NOAC’s restrictions will remain in place at least for the short term, meaning tour guides focused on the cemetery will need to find alternative routes or other sources of income entirely. The courts will ultimately determine to what extent the organization can control access to, and the stories that are told, about one of the city’s well known historic sites.

Top: Grace Kennedy of Nola Tour Guy leads a walking tour through the French Quarter
all photos by Laura Borealis

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