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.
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?
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
J. Stephen Perry,
president and CEO of the 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
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.
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,
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
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
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,
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,
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
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.
reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].