Since the 1920’s, the French Quarter has been represented by Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents, and Associates, Inc., or VCPORA for short. Given recent events, perhaps they should recast themselves as the “Vieux Carre’s Persnickety Oligarchs Representing Authoritarianism.”
Case in point: This weekend at Rising Tide 8, a local conference geared towards discussing New Orleans’ future, a panel was held on tourism in New Orleans. During panel discussion, Meg Lousteau, Executive Director of VCPORA, noted approvingly that Bhutan has a limit on the number of tourists allowed into the country each year.
I wasn’t present, so I cannot attest to whether every jaw in the room hit the floor at that moment or not. The Kingdom of Bhutan, for those not aware, is an independent nation located in Asia. In order to preserve their Buddhist cultural heritage, Bhutan requires tourists to acquire visas before entering the country, and limits the number of tourist visas offered per year.
But Bhutan’s cultural protectionist policies have been far more brutal than merely limiting tourism. In the 1980’s, Bhutan began stripping the minority Lhotshampa Nepali of their citizenship, and then in the 1990’s began to send in the military in to force these “illegal residents” out of their homes. All in all, Bhutan expelled approximately one-sixth of its population out of concern that the ethnic Napali minority would somehow destroy its carefully crafted cultural identity.
In 2007, the US offered to take in 60,000 Bhutanese refugees who would otherwise have no citizenship by virtue of what has been called “Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing.”
Given this background, it is simply bizarre that anybody would suggest that New Orleans emulate Bhutan. First of all, it can’t – New Orleans can’t restrict the constitutional rights of American citizens to visit our city. We certainly can’t limit the number of tourist visas because we have no authority to issue such visas in the first place.
Secondly, Bhutan is a vile nation that has systematically forced out ethnic minorities in the name of preserving its “culture,” and still pushes oppressive policies. This is the opposite of what New Orleans wants to be. We’re supposed to be open and accepting, not a cultural inquisition. Although we shouldn’t be wasting scarce taxpayer funds to sanitize our city for the take of tourists, we shouldn’t be trying to exclude them either.
I contacted Lousteau regarding her statement. While admitting to using Bhutan as an example, she acknowledged that a ceiling on the number of annual visitors to the French Quarter would be unworkable and indicated that there are other means to mitigate impacts from tourism. I’ll also grant that she probably wasn’t aware of Bhutan’s expulsion of ethnic minorities and certainly didn’t intend to reference it.
Nevertheless, Lousteau’s gaffe illustrates of how many people in the French Quarter think. There is a parochial mindset that has been building amongst affluent newcomers to the French Quarter for decades, and it seems to be getting worse. In spite of the fact that the Quarter has long been a focal point for tourism, revelry and commercial activity, these people would prefer the Quarter to be primarily a sedate residential neighborhood. Tourism gets in the way of that.
These are people who appreciate the layout, the history, and the aesthetic of the Quarter, but would prefer to see virtually everything else about it go the way of the dodo. They claim to care about preserving our culture from the ravages of mass tourism, but it is painfully obvious that they only want to “preserve” it for themselves and in an fake, idealized form.
VCPORA’s efforts to revise city’s noise ordinance are further evidence of this. As I’ve noted previously, their “seven point plan” includes points that are plainly illegal or simply irrational. For example, they recommend that the city create “unlimited fines” for noise ordinance violations, when that would violate constitutional protections against unreasonable punishments. They further suggest public input in the granting of mayoralty permits, when the issuance of such permits is non-discretionary. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense, as long as it makes it more difficult to hold special events or for businesses to offer live entertainment.
Sometimes the disdain becomes even more blatant. Recently, Vieux Carre Commission Chairman Dr. Ralph Lupin notoriously spoke of how Jackson Square tarot card readers “look like trash” and spoke openly of wanting them run off like some worthless Bhutanese refugee (ok, ok, I made that last bit up). These comments came in the wake of City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer’s introduction of a barely-disguised anti-loitering ordinance for Jackson Square, which she abandoned after it was openly challenged as unconstitutional.
Against this backdrop, it makes sense that VCPORA would entertain the notion of hard limits on tourism, or at least a citywide policy to discourage tourism. For VCPORA and like-minded individuals, their narrow ends will always justify the means. Individual rights and competing interests are mere speed bumps. And in that regard, the Bhutanese government couldn’t have put it better.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.