A NOTE ON TOURISM
For many centuries, tourism has been a source for cultural enlightenment. In the twentieth-century it assumed a very positive form within the frameworks of “study abroad” programs sponsored by American colleges and universities. It should be debated, however, whether domestic tourism has the same luster. Our sense of American history can be much improved by tours of such cities as San Francisco, Natchez, Selma, San Antonio, Charleston, Atlanta, St. Louis, Boston, and Philadelphia. Much can be learned about the life and death of American cities by visits to Memphis, Detroit, and Newark. Some of us who are inhabitants of New Orleans do question whether tourists learn much about history and struggles, architecture and urban/urbane aesthetics, and how wealth and poverty demarcate separate and unequal celebrations of life and death ,or whether tourists merely pleasure themselves in twisted Catholic excesses which are denied them in their Puritan hometowns. Those who have deep roots in New Orleans often have to ask if tourism is a financial blessing or a toxic curse. Dispassionate analysis might convince us that it is nearly impossible to distinguish curses from blessings in the context of tourism.
Although Paige A. McGinley’s Staging the Blues: From Tent Shows to Tourism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014) gives no attention to the theatricality of the blues in New Orleans, the special notice the book gives to tourism as performance in Clarksdale, Mississippi is an eloquent reminder that in a music-based tourist economy, “it is the tourist who takes center stage, as he or she stands in for past and passed performers” (179). To be sure, New Orleans possesses a richer, more complex history than Clarksdale, but our city is an ideal target for the distortions and abnormality that intensive tourism can produce. Thus, McGinley’s impressive discussion of blues tourism can be a valuable guide for studies of jazz tourism, disaster tourism, and Carnival/Mardi Gras tourism in our city of Saints, sinners, rampant post-Katrina gentrification, and preoccupations with corruption, crime, and cuisine. McGinley’s book reinforces my sense that the city I have come to love is a beautiful mess that encourages us to become tourists of our own existence. As New Orleans prepares for its tercentennial, one of its unique attractions becomes more visible. It is the only urban area in the United States that manages to have 366 festivals in 365 days. Our worship of celebration blackwashes our need to care overmuch about how social and economic problems reproduce themselves in our version of Paradise. We almost celebrate ourselves into oblivion.
Do not be surprised if New Orleans initiates Creole Roach Fest and Cajun Garbage Fest for 2017. After all, the new New Orleans is in desperate need of tourist dollars. It must not fail to convince people that it is one of the most exotic places on Earth. We must not disappoint the tourists.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. January 20, 2015