Rough going for Big Easy operators showing Katrina devastation

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NEW ORLEANS -- Operators of tours through hurricane-ravaged portions of New Orleans expressed surprise last week at the overwhelmingly negative coverage of their endeavors by the news media.

The tours -- operated by Gray Line New Orleans and Tours by Isabelle -- generated hundreds of print articles and were featured on CNN and MSNBC. Most of the coverage was negative.

For example, a news article in the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph began: Never underestimate the bad taste of some American tourists. Take the Katrina bus tours. Please.

Gregory Hoffman, manager of Gray Line New Orleans, gave an interview to CNN and later said he was shocked when he saw how it had been edited for broadcast. The report concluded with host Paula Zahn stating, It kind of makes your stomach turn, doesnt it?

Tours are absolutely normal

Julee Pearce, Gray Line New Orleans marketing director, said that after the report aired, Hoffman called the local CNN correspondent who had conducted the interview to express his displeasure. The correspondent, according to Pearce, said she was sorry, but thats the way CNN wanted to do the story.

She said they had made the decision to try to create a sense of outrage, Pearce said.

J. Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the One of the tour stops in New Orleans: the headquarters of Fats Domino Publishing, owned by rock n roll pianist Fats Domino, a New Orleans resident. New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said such reports were overblown, however he understood how the tours might be see as inappropriate outside of New Orleans.

Some are going to perceive it as gawking, Perry acknowledged. But frankly, with everything thats been going on here, it seems absolutely normal.

Yet much of the coverage focused on New Orleans residents who objected to people making money off the disaster.

Pearce countered that tour operators and their employees are residents whose livelihoods were shattered by the disaster. In addition, Gray Line is contributing almost 10% of its gross revenue to charity, she said, cutting into already tight margins.

Seeing is believing

Hoffman lost his home, Pearce said, as did most of the guides or their families. Were not a company that moved in after the hurricane to make money, she said.

Even so, Pearce said she understands the sensitivity of some residents about the tours: Peoples emotions are raw here because of what theyve been through. Were all at our wits end.

Still, Gray Line stands by its assertion that the tours have a purpose greater than gawking or making money.

People do want to see it, and they need to understand it, Pearce said. You cant believe it till you see it, the scope of it. Every time I see it, I cant believe it. What were trying to do is educate people about what happened and why it happened.

In addition, she said, the tours help visitors understand the history and national importance of the port of New Orleans.

One hundred percent of the grain exports go through here, she said. The coffee comes in through here because were the main port from Central and South America. Thirty percent of the seafood in the Lower 48 states comes through south Louisiana.

Likewise, she said, people need to know how offshore drilling destroyed the vegetation on the coast, which in turn led to erosion that destroyed the wetlands, natures buffer against storm surges.

The charges of gawking are unfounded, Pearce insisted. People dont do that. These are not ghoulish people going down there. If you stop and think about it, do people go to the World Trade Center to gawk and laugh?

Even bad publicity is good

Dealing with major media outlets was a novel experience for Gray Line, and Pearce admitted that the negative coverage hurt at first -- but she also acknowledges that it was the best thing that could have happened for business.

In the end, I guess its true: Any news is good news, Pearce said. Were starting the tours [Jan. 4] and we already have two minivans full.

A competing operator, Tour operator Isabelle Cossart in New Orleans Ninth Ward, where the Industrial Canals levee breached. Isabelle Cossart, owner of Tours by Isabelle, said she has been offering tours of devastated parts of New Orleans since Oct. 1, but she said they had never drawn more than a few passengers until a reporter showed up.

Somehow Chris Cooper of the Wall Street Journal found out about it and came on a tour, Cossart said.

Once Coopers story ran, Cossart said that business jumped from one or two people per day to full-capacity tours.

The Wall Street Journal put me front and center, on the front page, she said. Its like my birthday. Now were getting all these calls. People want to see what New Orleans is like. Im able to work again and rehire some of my wonderful people I had to lay off.

As important as her livelihood is, Cossart insists its about more than money.

Its almost a political thing, she said. I show them where it happened, how it happened. I show them the beautiful parts and the ugly parts, because to me its a tale of two cities, both the beautiful and the ugly. We have to make sure it gets fixed in the right way so this never happens again.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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