Exactly what are the regulations for walking tours? Are they being changed? What about enforcement of existing ordinances? A French Quarter resident, local tour guide and a Loyola tour guide instructor takes an in-depth look.
- by Frank Perez
- photos by Ellis Anderson
Walking tour groups have always been a source of tension between French Quarter residents and tour operators. The number of tour groups in the Quarter has reached peak saturation in recent pre-COVID years, as have complaints from residents. Complaints range from blocked sidewalks and building entrances to the volume of tour guides, some of whom unnecessarily shout out their spiels. The city has recently taken notice and is proposing amendments to the current tour guide ordinance.
But will those changes work?
On January 18 the Department of Property Management (DPM) and Ground Transportation Bureau (GTB) invited licensed tour guides to a Tour Guide Stakeholder Meeting via Zoom to discuss steps to re-open Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 (which has been closed since 2019) and to review ordinances pertaining to tour guides in the city.
The administration of city-owned cemeteries falls under DPM while tour guides fall under the GTB, which is a part of the Department of Public Works (DPW). Among the items discussed were the rationale for reducing the maximum cemetery tour party size from 28 to seven and limiting the size of all other tours from 28 to 14 guests.
Response to the meeting was passionate. During the public comment portion of the meeting, many tour guides expressed disapproval and frustration. Several guides argued the proposed changes in group size would adversely affect their ability to earn a living. Others pointed out the group size changes would result in more tours on the street at the same time, thereby exacerbating the problem the city is trying to resolve.
Still others claimed the proposed reservation system to access Lafayette Cemetery #1 was not feasible and would make it easier for large tour companies to monopolize access to the cemetery at the expense of smaller independent tour operators.
One proposed change that everyone seemed to agree on was a provision that automatically suspends the license of any tour guide arrested for committing a felony until the case is adjudicated.
This change stems from an incident that occurred in January 2020. At that time a tour guide was arrested for shooting her boyfriend in the abdomen on the sidewalk in the 600 block of Royal Street. She immediately resumed giving tours after being released from jail and then shot her boyfriend again in July of 2021. Her tour guide license was never revoked.
Another recurrent theme in the comments was the GTB’s lack of enforcement of the current rules. Many tour guides pointed out that if there was enforcement, the “bad apples” would be weeded out. Currently, the 28-person limit is often ignored, especially by some tour companies operating in the French Quarter.
Also, some tours regularly go past 10pm, which is when they are supposed to stop. Another regulation frequently ignored dictates that tour groups must remain 50 feet apart from each other.
Multiple requests to GTB for an explanation concerning its lack of enforcement went unanswered.
The speculation is that GTB is understaffed – an idea underscored by the fact that tour guide license renewals are taking an extraordinarily long time to be processed, six months in some cases. Alternatively, it could be the need for a more robust approach. Attendees at the meeting asked what good new regulations would be if the current ones are not being enforced.
After the meeting, the three teachers of tour guide classes that lead to city licensure (Grey Sweeney of the Friends of the Cabildo, Randy Bibb of Delgado Community College, and Frank Perez of Loyola University) met to discuss the proposed changes and then scheduled two meetings, one with Cheryn Robles of DPW and Council member Freddie King’s office and one with Emily Ford, Superintendent of the Division of Cemeteries (DPW).
At a January 25 meeting with Robles and King, we expressed our concerns that the proposed changes would be ineffective (if not counter-productive) and suggested alternative revisions. These changes fell under three categories.
First we stressed the importance of enforcing the current regulations to Robles and King. We pointed out that although the City Code requires that guides be provided the city’s Standards of Conduct and Ethics for Licensed Tour Guides, this requirement is rarely met.
It would be easy for the GTB to require applicants to read and sign this document as part of the application process, but they do not do that. Most tour guides probably do not know such a document exists.
We also pointed out the regulation and rules governing tour guides needs to be covered on the city issued test. There are currently only five regulations:
Sec. 30-1489. – Walking tour guide rules and regulations.
(1)Tour guides shall not be allowed to use voice amplifiers on walking tours.
(2)During a tour narration, tour groups shall maintain a distance of 50 feet from another tour group.
(3)Tour groups shall be limited to 28 patrons per tour.
(4)No solicitation by tour guides or tour companies is permitted on the streets in the city.
(5)All tour groups shall be disbanded by 10:00 p.m. nightly. Garden District tours shall be concluded by 6:00 p.m. nightly.
(M.C.S., Ord. No. 21187, § 2, 7-17-03)
Sec. 30-1490. - Identification.
Tour guides shall display their city tour guide license at all times. In addition, tour guides must display identification of the name of the company by which they are employed.
In an effort to address the lack of resources and staffing issue, we then encouraged Robles and King to consider granting enforcement power to the French Quarter Task Force and the Garden District Security Patrol, in addition to their own officers.
We concluded by saying that most of the complaints the city receives could be easily avoided if they just enforced the rules currently on the books.
Requirements to Become a Tour Guide
In our meeting with Robles and King, we also pointed out it is too easy to become a tour guide in New Orleans. Currently, someone who has never been to New Orleans can move to the city, get a federal background check, pass a test, and become a licensed tour guide in a matter of weeks. The whole process costs roughly $115.00.
There are a number of ways to “raise the bar,” so to speak, some of which include a higher application fee, a residency requirement, a more difficult test (the one now in use is currently available on-line), and adding an education incentive, such as a discounted application or licensing fee for taking formal tour guide classes.
Randy Bibb, President of the Tour Guide Association of Greater New Orleans, observes:
“What the tourism industry needs is to promote professionalism from every tour guide. When I first came into tourism, some 20 years ago, and started looking into becoming a tour guide, there was a high level of professional standards; tour guides were taught it and tour companies expected it from their tour guides.
This professionalism came from a class. In fact, as I looked into what it took to become licensed as a tour guide, all sources told me that one was required to take a class in order to get a license. I was licensed through Friends of the Cabildo in 2004, afterward I took the Delgado Professional Tour Guiding class — which I now teach.
I immediately joined the Tour Guide Association of Greater New Orleans, Inc. (TGAGNOI) because of their dedication to maintaining the professional standards of those in the industry. Today I serve as the President of TGAGNOI.”
Bibb continues, “I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that when someone pays the money required to take a class they are investing in their career. Having done so, they tend to take that career very seriously because of the money they've invested in it.
"They are the ones who join TGAGNOI and they are the one who attend all of the lectures, seminars, workshops, etc. All of which require even more of an investment. One who invests money tends to take their profession more seriously.”
Development of Realistic Regulations for Tour Sizes
Our third major concern had to do with reducing tour sizes; in short, we argued that 14 on the street and 7 in Lafayette Cemetery #1 are unrealistic numbers. We stated the group size for the street and the cemetery should be the same.
In the Garden District, most guides combine a neighborhood walking tour with the cemetery, which results in a far smaller cemetery tour footprint/time-table versus a stand-alone cemetery tour. Also, limiting tour groups to only seven people is not financially feasible for tour operators. Furthermore, whatever number they decide on should be an even number since most tourists travel in pairs.
We then emphasized that simply cutting walking tour sizes in half from 28 to 14 would result in doubling the number of tour groups on the street. Realizing they were determined to reduce the number of people in a tour group, we argued for something closer to 20 or 25, all the while stressing that 28 could theoretically work if tour guides were better trained and if GTB actually enforced the rules.
Tours in the Cemeteries
In a subsequent meeting with Emily Ford, Superintendent of the Division of Cemeteries, Bibb, Sweeney, and I spoke at length about Lafayette Cemetery #1. Ford said she is “not married” to the number seven and agreed to raising that number; however, she pointed out that she has to consider and negotiate the concerns of families who have residents buried in the cemetery. Many of these families do not want any tours at all in the cemetery.
We also expressed grave concerns about the proposed reservation system. Ford did inform us that there will be a public bathroom installed in the cemetery and that the gate will be staffed with someone to monitor the tour groups.
According to Ford, changes at the cemetery may be made without City Council approval.
Changing the number of people allowed on other walking tours will require an amendment to a city ordinance and that will have to be approved by the City Council. Consequently, a number of tour company owners have already hired lawyers and lobbyists to oppose the proposed changes.
The Big Picture
Whatever changes are made to the tour guide ordinance will essentially be myopic in that they will fail address the much larger issue of over-tourism – the phenomenon whereby certain places of interest, usually historic city centers, are visited by excessive numbers of tourists, causing undesirable effects for the places visited. This is certainly true in the French Quarter, and some are calling on the city to address the issue.
The New Orleans Sustainable Tourism Task Force, an independent collective of concerned New Orleans citizens was launched in 2018 to work alongside city and tourism leaders to redirect the flow of New Orleans tourism toward a sustainable course, abate the destructive effects of unmanaged mass tourism, and advocate for systemic changes to maintain a growth path in which success is measured in terms of community uplift.
Among the negative impacts the Task Force is concerned with are the erosion of residential quality of life, cleanliness, crime and the burden tourism places on already depleted law enforcement agencies, environmental impacts, the proliferation of short-term-rentals and their effect on neighborhoods, aggressive panhandlers and con-men who view tourists as easy marks, the cost of maintaining infrastructure, and a degraded visitor experience. The Task Force's online presentation can be viewed here.
New Orleans is not alone. A number of European cities are struggling with over-tourism as well. Mallorca, Barcelona, Venice, Santorini, and Prague have all recently passed laws to reign in unmanaged over-tourism.
Amsterdam, for example, has banned night tours in its historic center. And Venice is close to losing its UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site and being placed on the “In Danger” list, a designation usually reserved for cities reduced to ruins because of war.
Tourism has its advantages and its benefits, but also its invisible burdens. The city needs to open its eyes and have a conversation with tourism and neighborhood leaders about these issues. The current model of tourism in New Orleans is simply not sustainable. The current proposals to amend the tour guide ordinance are a far cry from what is truly needed.
In the meantime, if the city is unwilling to address the larger issue of over-tourism, it should at least enforce the rules and regulations on the books before changing the ordinance.
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Frank Perez serves as President of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana and has authored four books on New Orleans history and teaches part-time at Loyola University. He is also a licensed tour-guide. He and his partner live in the French Quarter. You may contact him through his website, www.FrenchQuarterFrank.com.
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