Ahead of a major travel trade show expected to draw thousands of attendees from around the world, the state’s chief tourism promoter is sounding the alarm over some of New Orleans’ perennial problems: crime, crumbling streets and an apparent rise in vagrants in areas frequented by visitors.
The long-simmering issues, he said, could undermine the city’s vital tourism industry.
“The crime, the homeless people out in front of shops and sidewalks, it’s embarrassing,” Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who oversees the state’s Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, said in a recent interview. “The condition of the streets and the sidewalks and lights not working in the French Quarter — I’m disappointed.”
Nungesser’s thoughts — likely shared by many local residents but disputed by local officials and tourism leaders — came on the eve of the U.S. Travel Association’s annual trade show, IPW, which is returning to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center from Saturday through Wednesday.
The convention is expected to draw more than 6,000 attendees from 73 countries, including international and domestic travel buyers and hundreds of travel writers.
Despite coming off a year in which the city hosted nearly 9.8 million visitors, edging close to the pre-Hurricane Katrina record of 10.1 million in 2004, Nungesser worries that trajectory will soon slide if New Orleans doesn’t clean up its act.
“We’re either going to fix it, or it’s going to greatly affect our tourism numbers,” said Nungesser, adding that he’s eager to work with Mayor Mitch Landrieu to find solutions.
While saying they are grateful for his offer to help, city and tourism officials say some long-term steps already are in the works to tackle Nungesser’s concerns.
They point to the quarter-cent sales tax increase approved last year in the French Quarter as a key step. The money — set to support an ongoing State Police contingent in the Quarter — is expected to raise at least $2 million annually for five years, largely shouldered by visitors.
Recent crime statistics for the Quarter offer a mixed bag. The historic district saw a nearly 17 percent collective spurt in serious crimes — murders, rapes, robberies and assaults — in the first three months of 2016 compared with the same period a year ago.
The increase was the result of a sharp spike in reported rapes, which also are up citywide, according to the New Orleans Police Department. Police attribute some of the increase to better reporting rather than an actual increase in sexual assaults. Still, 17 rapes were reported in the neighborhood in the first three months of 2016, up from seven in the same period in each of the two prior years.
The Quarter had seven reported armed robberies in the first quarter, down from 10 in the same period in 2015 and 13 in 2014, according to NOPD data. There were 21 reported assaults, compared with 22 in 2015 and 26 in 2014.
Overall, city officials contend that Nungesser, a former president of Plaquemines Parish, missed the mark. “He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but he is certainly not informed of all the things that we are doing toward the issues that he’s raised, and frankly, it’s unfortunate,” top Landrieu aide Ryan Berni said.
The city recently tapped $8.3 million in federal disaster recovery money to repair streets, waterlines and sidewalks and to make other repairs in the Quarter and the Central Business District, part of a multiple-year effort expected to finish in 2017. The city also is teaming with the Downtown Development District to build a $2 million low-barrier homeless shelter, which officials hope will alleviate vagrancy.
Other public figures besides Nungesser recently have spotlighted crime in the French Quarter. Former trash company owner Sidney Torres IV said this month that he would donate another $100,000 to buy three new Smart cars and revamp a mobile app system for the off-duty police patrols in the Quarter that he started more than a year ago. Torres has publicly flirted with a run for mayor.
Despite the local emphasis on the crime issue, some local and national tourism leaders claim it’s a drumbeat that’s largely confined within city limits.
“Crime is very often a local story. I haven’t heard one person — not one person — say, ‘Why are you going to New Orleans? We hear there’s a lot of crime,’ ” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, which runs the IPW trade show.
Likewise, Stephen Perry, head of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the French Quarter grapples with the same issues that plague most urban areas.
“The one thing about New Orleans is that it’s not perfect,” Perry said. “It’s not a theme park. One of the great draws here is that this is one of the last real, authentic, gritty places to go, and I think the fact that it is so authentic and real means that it has something.”
Some residents and business owners say their tolerance for such “grittiness” has limits.
“Billy Nungesser can say what he wants about the French Quarter, but we as a city are failing on an infrastructure level (throughout the city). Absolutely failing,” said James “Trey” Monaghan, whose family owns Molly’s at the Market in the 1100 block of Decatur Street.
Fielding questions about crime perception is not new for local hospitality and business leaders, particularly following high-profile incidents, such as when two young Australian tourists were shot after venturing to the West Bank in April. The early morning shooting, which allegedly was drug-related, made international news.
To Nungesser, that sort of thing is bad for business.
“We ought to be putting our best foot forward, not cringing every time we turn on the news or take guests down in the French Quarter,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers … but we need to have some honest discussion and really have some plan to fix it because it doesn’t seem to get fixed.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.