The New Orleans tourism season is revving up after its long summer lull. It's the time of year when people in the hospitality sector here breathe a sigh of relief.
It's also a good time to acknowledge that while the tourists now en route bring their wallets, they also carry double-edged swords.
The more New Orleans restaurants rely on them, the less these restaurants need New Orleans people.
The money may keep flowing, and new restaurants will keep opening. But the trajectory isn’t pretty for a community that prizes great food and hospitality as part of its heritage.
It's another dynamic from the city's ever-expanding number of restaurants.
Anyone interested in New Orleans restaurants knows there are a lot of them. But how many?
New ones open at a dizzying pace, and the pipeline of coming-soon additions always seems full. When a long-running restaurant closes, its fans express anguish, but then three more spots are already on the way to vie for its role. It increases pressure on all players to get their cut of the pie.
What fuels the restaurant growth has to be the tourists, and their rising numbers. Local tourism officials counted 17.74 million of them in 2017, up 5.7 percent from 2016.
That’s a difference of 45-to-1 for visitors over the home team. Tourists come to dine out; the portion of locals who have the means and desire to do the same has to be a much smaller number.
What is a restaurant to do? It needs that tourism business.
So get buzz, push your image, get on those endless hot lists and travel guides and maybe enough of those 17.74 million visitors will visit you once. Who cares if they never come back? Next year, millions more will come. It's a one-shot proposition, and the flickering attention span of the online era raises the pace and the stakes.
This is a logical business approach that has sustained tourist traps forever. But it’s also at odds with a business sector straddling a cultural expression that New Orleanians care about deeply.
The reason New Orleans draws visitors is the idea that it is different, and offers something they can’t find at home. They are not coming here for the beaches and mountains, after all. Restaurants have always been a key part of this cultural equation.
But the very idea of New Orleans as a great food city is not based on our restaurants’ appeal to tourists. It is their appeal to New Orleans people.
It comes from people who know how to cook and who recognize local flavor, who give restaurants their identity and texture by investing them with their own stories, and by entwining these places with their own traditions until they are practically inseparable.
Feeding this kind of restaurant relationship does not come from trend-watching or PR coaching or placements on TV food competitions or best-of lists.
It can only come from people who care about restaurants enough to go back again and again even when they have a lot of choices. It also relies on people within the restaurants who understand they have a clientele, not just a table to fill.
This goes beyond the traditional New Orleans restaurants. This city's cultural obsession with food keeps fresh talent coming in, people who are drawn to work and build careers in a culinary city where their craft is revered and their role in community life is recognized. It also evolves from within, as next-generation New Orleans natives interpret what they've inherited in their own ways.
This is how a food culture with deep roots is refreshed and kept relevant and not just relegated to folkways and historic restaurants.
But the more the New Orleans part leaves the equation, the less any of that is true.
The more New Orleans chases that one-time visitor, the more locals forfeit what is unique and distinctive about this place, the more New Orleans will become just another tourist town with too many restaurants.
Take this far enough and the day may come when New Orleans won't be that distinctive after all, and there will be one less reason for people to visit.
Across the globe, communities are grappling with how to harness tourism, instead of being overrun by it. New Orleans faces these challenges on many levels.
In this particular case, one answer is clear. What can shift the situation are relationships — recognizing them, remembering them, forging new ones that have some basis for longevity. People who work in restaurants can do this, and so can the people who value them.
That's a longer game. But when it comes to New Orleans food, a slow simmer has always been better than a flash in the pan.
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