Tour Guides Need Relief Too Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

photo credit: Mathew Morris

Here’s a question. Can you name a home-grown local industry that is over a century old, leaves no carbon footprint, provides jobs, acts as ambassadors to guests from all over the nation and world, and inspires visitors to embrace the history, architecture, and culture of New Orleans?

The answer goes by a variety of names–history practitioner, interpreter, docent, buggy driver—but mostly you know them as tour guides.

Since the early 1900s, tour guides explained the basic outlines of the city’ history and the underpinnings of its culture. They’ve recommended museums, restaurants, music clubs, boutiques, and art galleries.

Even in an era when Internet sources can be tapped for local history, visitors like to have it explained to them, in the streets where it happened. And even in an era when online reviews and geo-locating smartphones automatically steer visitors to destinations, newcomers still crave personal word-of-mouth recommendations of what to see and do.

Yet tour guides–often that first point-of-contact between visitors and locals –are not only unrepresented, but often excluded from broader conversations about the hospitality and tourism industry.

With the COVID-19 pandemic gutting the cultural economy, organizations have rightfully rallied around service industry workers and culture bearers of the city. But little public attention or financial support have been extended to the original ambassadors of New Orleans- tour guides.

The Greater New Orleans Foundation Service and Hospitality Family Assistance Program, for example, acknowledges that “the people of New Orleans reap the benefits of a robust tourism industry fueled by the hard work of tens of thousands of front line workers in our restaurants, bars, and hotels.” Missing from that statement is tour guides, who are excluded from this fund. When carriage operator Rebekah Chatellier emailed GNOF about her eligibility for assistance, they replied, “Unfortunately tour guides do not qualify for this program.”

Many tour-guides work for companies as 1099 workers, or independent contractors. They were initially ineligible for unemployment in Louisiana. To its credit, the Louisiana Workforce Commission is now allowing 1099 workers to apply for unemployment benefits. Additionally, the New Orleans Business Alliance set up a Gig-Relief Fund for gig workers such as ride-share drivers and tour guides, and Cultural Aid NOLA is not barring guides from its food drives.

These programs are appreciated, even as the situation of tour guides puts them at a greater disadvantage in their attempts to help themselves.

Others in the hospitality industry have some glimmer of hope.

Restaurateurs, for example, can sling food for take-out and delivery. Tour guides cannot do the same for their offerings.

Bartenders can pre-package and deliver cocktails. Tour guides cannot.

Artists can set up shops online. Tour guides cannot.

Musicians can live-stream performances. Tour guides cannot.

As a tour guide and carriage operator, I call upon our community to view our industry as integral to the hospitality economy, and to the culture of our city.

We need to be inclusive about the term “culture bearers,” and who fits that bill. My friend, a chef and arts photographer, noted that the cultural community of New Orleans operates as an interdependent circle, but is often treated like a ladder. Even in the ladder metaphor, tour guides are ignored–maybe we’re just missed because we work with visitors more than locals. In pre-pandemic New Orleans, tour guides and carriage drivers were excluded from hospitality unions and ineligible for programs geared towards “culture bearers” as the term is typically understood. The New Orleans Musician Clinic extends their healthcare to many, from DJs to choir members, from Mardi Gras Indians to writers. Only within the last couple of years has a similar program, Healthy Hospitality, emerged for the service industry. But where is the respect for interpreters who skillfully narrate complex history and culture for countless visitors?

This narrative is not merely trivia or lore, but an immersion into the essence of the city. It is our job to leave customers with a rich and textured impression of New Orleans, from the importance of the Mississippi to the legacy of Congo Square, from colonial and antebellum eras to the 1900s and 2000s, from slavery to emancipation and civil rights, and from shotgun houses and cottages to townhouses and mansions. That impression is vast and varied; we have the power to encourage return visitors, to stay at hotels, visit museums, try restaurants, and explore lesser-visited neighborhoods.

Where is the credit for the tour guide who encourages a group of visitors to journey across town to the Maple Leaf Bar?

Where is the credit for the history practitioner who convinces first-time visitors to explore beyond Bourbon Street, beyond the French Quarter, and beyond the streetcar lines?

Even ghost tours, no matter how far-fetched or fanciful, present folklore, imagery, and broader themes of New Orleans history. They’re storytellers. Aren’t we all?

Similarly, the New Orleans carriage industry preserves a trade and legacy that is almost as old as the city. Though buggies now carry people rather than cargo, wagon driving is a trade and skill that historically provided critical jobs for what today we would call “culture bearers” and their working-class families. Musicians combed the city on furniture wagons to advertise their gigs, leading to the “tailgate trombone” style. The first documented group of Mardi Gras Indians included teamsters and draymen. The first jazz hit featured the cacophony of draft animals. Louis Armstrong told his mule “Lady” he had to leave her to pursue a career in music—and did he ever.

Isn’t the horse-drawn hearse conveying the deceased for whom the crowd gathers and the band honors, just as crucial in jazz funerals?

How many photographs, paintings, and articles feature the mule-drawn Roman Candy cart?

Just like Mardi Gras parades and streetcars, carriage drivers are interwoven into the cultural fabric and iconography of New Orleans; they are the vehicle that has pulled the thread in the tapestry that is New Orleans, for three hundred years.

History helps craft culture, and it is a tour guide’s job to encourage its presentation.

I salute GNOF, Gayle Benson, and McIlhenny Group for establishing the Service and Hospitality Family Assistance Program to help so many unemployed in this desperate time of need.

I am not suggesting we take help away from some hospitality workers to give to others. I only request that organizations and individuals, as well as government agencies and services, consider tour guides when advocating for “front line workers” and their role in a robust tourism industry.

Please consider us as deserving for relief funds, as legitimate ”culture bearers,” and as service industry workers, even if we don’t have big-business employers.

We are also hard-working folks who love New Orleans, and whose livelihoods have disappeared during this, the busiest and most beautiful time of year. We are history practitioners, preservationists, writers, teachers, folklorists, and tradespeople. We are culture-bearers, and we are New Orleans.

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