Tourism is the No. 1 industry in both New Orleans and Las Vegas, two of the most popular destinations in the U.S. And while the local economies of both cities are fueled primarily by tourism, there’s plenty of backlash against the industry by locals, who complain that tourists disrespect their city, cause unnecessary congestion to roads and sidewalks, and more.
The anti-tourism sentiment in both cities is so prevalent, in fact, that NOLA and Vegas rank in the top five among “tourist-hating” cities in the U.S, according to CityLab. The cited study was based on geo-tagged tweets, however, so its accuracy is debatable.
However, in New Orleans at least, the statement rings somewhat true; locals blame the tourism industry in general as the main reason behind the lack of affordable housing in the city, and the prevalence of Airbnb rentals in particular.
Is Overtourism Contributing to NOLA’s Housing Crisis?
In 2018, the city of New Orleans celebrated its tricentennial, and millions of visitors joined in the fun. Exact figures aren’t yet available, but the number of tourists may surpass the nearly 11 million people who visited NOLA in 2017. It was a record-breaking year for the New Orleans tourist industry, contributing around $7.5 billion to the local economy.
But it’s been an uphill battle for the tourism industry in the Big Easy. The city of New Orleans essentially came to a standstill following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The city sustained heavy damage, mostly from the flooding caused by collapsed levees. One of the greatest engineering failures in modern U.S. history, Katrina’s levee breach resulted in about $27 billion in property damage and the loss of 124,000 jobs.
As the city re-built, myriad investors swooped in to purchase fixer-uppers across New Orleans. That influx of investors ultimately led to the current state of New Orleans housing, which favors tourists and leaves low-income residents behind.
A Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative report uncovered evidence of the local housing market’s prioritization of tourists over residents, including significant rent increases in traditionally working-class neighborhoods. Between 2015-2018, rent increased in the nine neighborhoods with the highest concentration of short-term rentals, including a whopping 71.93 percent increase for three-bedroom units in Bywater, one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by gentrification.
Las Vegas’ Growing Pains
Among officials in Las Vegas, “overtourism” doesn’t even seem to be in daily conversation. In fact, some sources claim that, in the current administration, the opposite is true: The travel ban imposed by President Trump, along with his negative feelings on immigration and foreign visitors, have led to a significant decrease in foreign tourists. It’s estimated that $32 billion in revenue and 40,000 jobs were lost within the national tourism industry in 2017, and Las Vegas was one of the hardest hit.
Despite the reported blow to the tourism industry since Trump took office, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) estimated that the city took in about $60 billion in tourism dollars in 2016. Nearly $17 billion went towards the wages of local employees. With numbers like that, it’s easy to understand why local officials may turn a blind eye to the possibility of overtourism in one of the world’s most popular destinations.
And even though the concept of overtourism has yet to see widespread usage in Sin City, there’s no question that Las Vegas is growing at a faster rate than it can sustain. The city topped national growth charts as early as 1999, and it’s shown no signs of slowing down.
Clark County is home to Las Vegas and Henderson, the two biggest cities in Nevada. As of 2018, the population of Clark County was more than 2.2 million, up from 1.3 million in 1999. Around 44 percent of those residents are employed in the hospitality industry. And when you factor in the estimated 39 million travelers who visit the city annually, Las Vegas seems a lot more crowded.
An Influx of Unique Tourism Styles
Vegas isn’t just a vacation destination — it’s also one of the top U.S. cities for business tourism. More than 21,000 conventions are held in the city each year, in expansive venues including the 3.2 million square foot Las Vegas Convention Center on Paradise Road, just off the Strip. In addition, Las Vegas is also an unlikely hotspot for gun tourism.
In New Orleans, food tourism is a huge draw, along with medical tourism, which is defined as travel (usually on an international basis) in order to seek medical treatment. NOLA’s Oschner Hospital performs more liver transplants than anywhere else in the country, and the hospital actively seeks out foreign-born patients as part of a 2015 agreement with the Saudi-based company Ansaq Medical Co. The effect that liver transplant patients and their families have on the tourism industry in New Orleans is unclear.
At its core, overtourism can change the character of a destination and make visitors feel as though it has lost its authenticity. Indeed, that’s one of the biggest complaints among New Orleans residents regarding tourists, behind the housing crisis.
In the eyes of many New Orleans residents, short-term rentals are directly connected to the lack of affordable housing. And the influx of short-term rentals across Orleans Parish can be attributed to overtourism. Local Cajun and Creole culture is being lost in its wake.
Across the country in Las Vegas, where overtourism is essentially swept under the rug, city planners continue to build further into the surrounding Mojave Desert. Estimates vary regarding how long Lake Mead, the primary source of drinking water in the Vegas Valley, can sustain continued population growth and heavy tourism.