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New Orleans tourism and crime; a case study.

In the past 10 years, New Orleans has become a major urban tourism destination in the United States. A strong meetings and conventions market coupled with the attraction of the French Quarter, antebellum homes, and riverboats have helped make tourism the main engine of the New Orleans economy. The destination, whose image has been enhanced over the years by special events such as the 1984 World's Fair, Mardi Gras festivities, or Super Bowls, is well known to domestic as well as to international travelers. Travel intermediaries such as tour operators, travel agents, or meeting planners have often ranked New Orleans in the top three U.S. urban destinations. However, parallel to the growth of tourism, the city continues to experience significant social problems. Many people are still underprivileged in an area whose poverty rate remains the third highest of any major American city. In addition, Louisiana continues to rank very poorly nationally with respect to education and public health. These problems, left unattended for decades, have contributed to rising crime statistics in New Orleans. The purpose of this article is to describe how crime has affected the New Orleans tourism industry and to suggest strategies for combating the detrimental impacts of crime on tourism.


A growing body of literature has been documenting the relationship existing between tourism and events that affect visitors' safety or safety perceptions. An expected finding has been that "safety, tranquility and peace are a necessary condition for prosperous tourism . . . most tourists will not spend their hard earned money to go to a destination where their safety and well-being may be in jeopardy" (Pizam and Mansfeld 1996, p. 1). Indeed, the travel and tourism industry is very sensitive to crisis events that affect the political, socioeconomic, or natural environments. Examples of documented crises that have affected tourism include the 1989 San Francisco earthquake (Milo and Yoder 1991), terrorism in Europe (Brady and Widdows 1988), or political instability in China (Gartner and Shen 1992; Roehl 1990). The impact of crime on international tourism in southern Florida has also been discussed at length in the industry. Pizam, Tarlow, and Bloom (1997) have already approached the New Orleans tourism and crime situation in a comparative study of three destinations. These authors identified the following common problems with dealing with crime in the study areas: lack of finances, manpower shortages, lack of cooperation within the media, need for greater community cooperation, and poor record keeping of crime statistics. For a complete literature review on tourism and crime, the reader is referred to the book edited by Pizam and Mansfeld (1996).

From a marketing perspective, it is important for destinations to realize that crime and, more important, media coverage and the resulting perceptions of safety will have an effect on their image. Researchers have long known that the image of a destination is a critical factor in tourists' destination choice process. Perceptions or images of a particular destination held by potential visitors are known to have significant influences on the success of tourism. Shiebler, Crotts, and Hollinger (1996) reported that the 1992 Florida tourist murders generated considerable media attention and resulted in a significant decline of tourism. However, they pointed out that crime rates against nonresidents had declined at the same time. Indeed, perceptions become reality. One of a destination's marketing strategic objectives should be to monitor customers' perceptions and either to reinforce them or change them through the various elements of the marketing mix. One such example is reported in a study about the public relations efforts to promote a positive image of Miami (Tilson and Stacks 1997). Nonetheless, little research has been published about the appropriate marketing strategies needed to counter the effects of a crisis on a tourism destination, and their effectiveness.

Tourists' intentions to visit a destination such as New Orleans are influenced by their perceptions or their knowledge of that destination. Roehl and Fesenmaier (1992) determined that risk perceptions, although situation specific, have an impact on travel behavior. Indeed, the risks that potential travelers associate with a destination can contribute to forming lasting images of that destination. Changing such an image will require long and costly marketing efforts. Also, the degree of safety tourists "feel during different travel situations determine interest in future travel. Risk perceptions and feelings of safety during travel appear to have stronger influence on avoidance of regions than likelihood of travel to them" (Sonmez and Graefe 1996, p. 45). If a tourist feels unsafe and threatened during his or her stay, he or she is not likely to return to that destination. Sonmez and Graefe found that personal experience might outweigh perceptions in their study of international vacation travel decisions. We also know about the importance of opinion leaders such as travel writers who can make or break a destination. "Public information transmittal is a component of the warning, impact, and recovery stages of a disaster" (Milo and Yoder 1991, p. 36). Although it is well known that media coverage can be overstated so as to increase ratings or circulation, its long-term impact on image recovery and tourists' decision making should be subject to further investigation.


In the past decade, the New Orleans tourism industry has enjoyed a steady growth, punctuated by the construction of new attractions, new hotels, first-class convention facilities, and more recently, the addition of gambling to the recreational mix. Tourism jobs now make up 16% of the city's employment, up from 7% 10 years ago. The economic impact of tourism is estimated to account for U.S.$3.5 billion. However, this thriving economic sector has increasingly been under siege by the threat of crime. Indeed, New Orleans has had a murder rate eight times the national average and five times that of New York City with 76 murders per 100,000 residents. Although the problem has been present for several years, there has been a general denial by the tourism industry and the city administration of the potential for adverse effects. Tourism has been booming: the convention center is undergoing a third phase expansion, 3,000 hotel rooms are being added to the existing 25,000, and development projects are under way for a family attraction theme park. In this development euphoria, it has been difficult for the industry to acknowledge the threat and to detect sure signs of the effects of crime, that is, lower revenues.

High Crime and Negative Publicity

Even by American standards, New Orleans is a violent city. More than 400 murders were committed in 1994 in New Orleans. Such statistics rapidly led reports of crimes and other problems such as police corruption to be published in the national media and contributed to creating negative publicity for the city. Although the tourist district is rarely the scene for murders, tourists have occasionally been killed in New Orleans, and many have been subjected to robberies and other crimes. However, shootings anywhere in the city make the front page of the local newspaper and the evening news, contributing to a sense of insecurity that is felt mostly by residents and, to a lower extent, by visitors. Residents and visitors experience regularly theft and muggings, even in the streets of the French Quarter. As the media disseminate crime stories locally and nationally (see Table 1), people increasingly perceive the city to be dangerous and fear for their safety. To a lesser degree, the New Orleans crime situation has been publicized internationally with articles in magazines such as The Economist (Murder in the cities 1994).

In addition to news stories, New Orleans may have suffered from anonymous letters that were sent in 1996 to meeting planners, warning them about crime and deteriorating conditions in the French Quarter. The executive vice president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) admitted that the public relations effect was terrible (Yerton 1996). Although there is no research to substantiate that fact, there is ample anecdotal evidence suggesting that some meeting planners boycott New Orleans for safety reasons. However, crime and the ensuing negative publicity apparently have not affected New Orleans tourism significantly yet with respect to revenues. If a crisis can be defined as a situation "which has the potential to totally disrupt the tourism industry for a period longer than the short term" (Cassedy 1992, p. 169), then New Orleans has not yet experienced a state of crisis. Specifically, a tourism crisis can be defined as

any occurrence which can threaten the normal operation and conduct of tourism related businesses; damage a tourist destination's overall reputation for safety, attractiveness, and comfort by negatively affecting visitors' perceptions of that destination; and, in turn, cause a downturn in the local travel and tourism economy, and interrupt the continuity of business operations for the local travel and tourism industry, by the reduction in tourist arrivals and expenditures. (Sonmez, Backman, and Allen 1994, p. 2.2)

The recent tourism growth may have offset the warning signs of a decline.

A crime situation, unlike other crises that break at a specific time such as an earthquake, riots, or acts of terrorism, pervades the tourism industry by slowly affecting the image of the destination and by changing people's perceptions. It is difficult to determine whether and when such a change in perceptions will result in a tourism downturn in New Orleans. However, travel intermediaries such as tour operators and meeting planners have already been voicing their concerns.

In a recent study of 350 meeting planners and tour operators conducted by the University of New Orleans, New Orleans scored the lowest of eight competing destinations on perceptions of visitor safety (Division of Business and Economic Research 1996). A study of Latin American travel intermediaries' perceptions of New Orleans conducted for the CVB (Dimanche and Moody forthcoming) confirmed these results in an international setting.

The challenge for the CVB is to monitor closely media stories and the meeting planners' concerns and to attempt to reassure them. However, safety concerns appear to be more prevalent among industry professionals than with actual tourists. A recent New Orleans visitor profile report indicated that 82.4% of the respondents perceived New Orleans to be a somewhat safe or safe destination (Dimanche and Moody 1997). This could be explained by the fact that visitors who have actually made the decision to come and stay in New Orleans are risk takers, attracted by the risque image of New Orleans, also known as the Big Easy. They brace themselves to come to New Orleans and find that the situation is not as bad as expected. In addition, many people come to New Orleans, especially international visitors, without being aware of the crime situation. However, the number of people who refuse to consider New Orleans for a visit because of safety concerns is unknown. Also, travel intermediaries may be more hesitant than tourists because they are professionals who can be liable for any injuries to their clients, especially when they failed to inform these clients about the potential risks of a destination (Abbott and Abbott 1997).

Reactions to Crime

Reactions to crime can be categorized according to the various types of stakeholders in tourism, that is, the city administration, the CVB, the private business sector, tourism businesses, residents, and tourists.

1. The city administration has long been criticized for not doing enough to control crime and protect both residents and tourists. But in 1994, a new police superintendent was brought in, committed to clean up a department well known for corruption activities, and supported by the City Council with a larger budget so as to increase the number of recruits and raise salaries. Police consultants previously successful in New York City came to improve police work (see Remnick 1997, for an account of their work in New Orleans). They brought in Comstat (computer statistics), a new crime statistics monitoring and evaluation system that had been developed and used successfully in New York City. In 1995, a new police district was created, including the French Quarter and the business district where most conference hotels and tourist activities are located. In this district, new patrol strategies were developed, with officers on horseback and bicycles. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics already reflect a decrease in crime through 1997, with armed robberies (minus 32%) and homicides (minus 18%) declining most significantly. These results are already making the news in the national press (Bly 1997; Pedersen 1997; Pressley 1997). Some of these efforts respond to the concerns expressed by Pizam, Tarlow, and Bloom (1997), and have been praised in the national press.

2. The CVB may be the tourism organization that is most concerned about crime. The CVB's main mission has been to attract groups to the city for meetings and conventions. They regularly experience rejections from potential organizational customers who do not want to consider New orleans as a meeting site for safety reasons. Through its public affairs department, the CVB sends to meeting planners and the media press releases that monitor the efforts and the changes made by the city to fight crime. Also, the CVB sponsors hospitality training programs for New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) graduating cadets and coordinates NOPD talks on safety for groups visiting the city. Lieutenant Defillo, an NOPD spokesperson, now carries new business cards that identify him as part of the CVB. The CVB sends safety brochures to potential visitors on request. Finally, the CVB hired in fall 1997 a consulting firm to help develop a marketing plan that will address the negative image New Orleans tourism suffers because of crime.

3. The most significant contribution of some New Orleans business leaders was to create the New Orleans Police Foundation, a group formed to raise money and support the NOPD financially. This organization hired in 1996 two crime-fighting consultants who have already been credited with curbing crime in New Orleans by installing Comstat. Another private sector organization, the Downtown Development District (DDD) created in 1995 a public safety newsletter in association with the NOPD titled New Orleans Street Smart. In addition, they created a brochure, also translated in French, Spanish, and Japanese, that is available to tourists through banks, hotels, travel agencies, and the CVB. This may appear like a good initiative, but the distribution of these brochures to tourists is very limited. Also, it should be noted that the DDD represents the Central Business District but not the adjacent French Quarter. Therefore, this tourist brochure does not show the French Quarter in its map, although it is the most popular and most heavily visited downtown area. This can be seen as a symptom of the lack of coordination and cooperation that exists between all stakeholders. Finally, some observers indicated that the brochures might have a detrimental effect because of their alarmist tone that could scare tourists instead of reassuring them. Unfortunately, no research has assessed the impact of these brochures.

4. Independent local tourism businesses have acted to assure their guests' safety and to reduce their liability. Hotels' security managers share information regarding crime, but as a group, the tourism sector has not been much involved in dealing with the problem. Although contributing some funds to the New Orleans Police Foundation, strong business associations such as the Hotel Motel Association or the Restaurant Association have not used their power to lead efforts against crime or to join groups such as the DDD or the CVB to expand their strategies.

5. The residents who are most affected by tourism and crime live in the French Quarter. They have long voiced their safety concerns and asked for more visible police patrols throughout the Quarter. Residents put up signs on their balconies and walls warning tourists that they were entering "a crime zone" [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The impact of these signs on tourists is unknown but they certainly contributed to tourist awareness of safety issues in the neighborhood. Residents in other parts of the city also play a role. Feeling unsafe, they will be the first to warn visiting friends and relatives about the dangers of New Orleans and to discourage them from visiting some of the city areas.

6. Despite the negative publicity, tourists keep coming to New Orleans and continue to stroll down Bourbon Street. It is unclear whether the crime situation has had a significant impact in this era of growth. Associations and groups booking for conventions have expressed their concerns to the CVB or hotels, but very few have actually canceled their bookings. Most of the tourists are adults without children. This may indicate that families choose not to come to New Orleans, despite the availability of family attractions. It is, of course, difficult to determine the proportion of potential visitors who decide not to come because of safety concerns.

Lack of Industry Efforts

Considering the results described above, it is disconcerting to see that tourism businesses have taken such a light approach to the problem. Tourism professionals are only beginning to talk openly about crime as a reason for slow bookings (Slaton 1997). Although crime statistics have received ample attention in the national media, tourism does not appear to have suffered significantly from the negative publicity yet. In fact, New Orleans is now benefiting from a trend indicating lower crime rates nationally. Local industry professionals have not experienced a major decrease in revenue of the sort that South Florida experienced after a spate of tourist murders a few years ago. They do not feel that they have reached a state of crisis, because revenues have not decreased. Until it experiences significant booking declines and revenue losses, the tourism industry will unfortunately not be very concerned. This, however, may be a self-defeating attitude. The threat remains, and ignoring the problems and refusing to invest in finding solutions can only lead to more pronounced impacts.

It is suggested here that tourism professionals should take significant action and join efforts with other community members before revenue decreases are experienced. Sufficient warning signals already exist, from image perception studies to concerns from meeting planners and group customers. A comprehensive marketing action plan should be devised that includes all members of the tourism sector. Its purpose should be to assure the safety of residents and tourists alike and to communicate to all stakeholders information regarding safety issues. In addition, the tourism industry could join forces to lobby the state for more support in addressing the crime situation. New Orleans is the most popular destination for travelers to Louisiana and the state would have much to lose should New Orleans experience a significant tourism downfall.


A high crime image can be detrimental to a destination, but that perception can be outweighed by other attractive factors. Luckily, New Orleans has many such attractive factors that are not likely to be overcome by fear, but it would certainly be a mistake to underestimate the potential impact of crime in New Orleans. It is the travel marketers' responsibility to stress in their promotional messages those attractive factors. Yet, they must also understand how potential travelers perceive the destination with respect to risk and provide to those who need it information necessary to make them feel safe.

It is well known that the tourism sector is fragmented, made of several components. This fragmentation may be cause for concern when considering dealing with a crisis situation. It will take cooperation, planning, and leadership to take the necessary steps to address the safety issue in New Orleans. However, some progress has been made since Pizam, Tarlow, and Bloom (1997) examined the New Orleans situation. Financial support for the police has grown from the city's budget and private donations, the police have engaged in an ambitious hiring process, and Comstat has been implemented, contributing to a drop in crime rates in 1997. However, citywide cooperation has not been achieved yet. Efforts to lower crime rates and to convince tourists that they can visit a safe destination require a commitment from all members of the community. But no one in the tourism sector has emerged as a leader and coordinator of such efforts as yet. Much has been accomplished in the past 3 years toward achieving recovery goals, but, other than hurricanes, crime remains the main threat to New Orleans and its tourism industry. Should New Orleans recover from crime and the resulting negative publicity, it would make a powerful story to tell the world.



* New Orleans fights the taint of crime; violence is dropping in the Big Easy and many other cities, but visitors may perceive otherwise (USA Today)

* New Orleans cemeteries besieged by crime wave (The New York Times)

* The Big Easy makes serious effort to solve sobering crime problem (The Washington Post)

* "Go get the scumbags." A very odd couple tries to clean up New Orleans (Newsweek)

* Blanco: Protect tourists from crime; new lieutenant governor plans task force (The Times Picayune)

* Conventioneer killed in robbery in Quarter (The Times Picayune)

* Meeting planners love New Orleans but are wary of rising crime (New Orleans City Business)

* Meeting planners get letters warning of crime in New Orleans (The Times Picayune)

* Hoteliers say crime is partly to blame for sluggish bookings (New Orleans City Business)


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Frederic Dimanche is an associate professor and Alenna Lepetic is a student in the School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Administration, College of Business, at the University of New Orleans.
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Title Annotation:New Orleans, LA; Special Issue on War, Terrorism, Tourism: Times of Crisis and Recovery
Author:Dimanche, Frederic; Lepetic, Alenna
Publication:Journal of Travel Research
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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