When I first started leading walking tours of Little Havana in 2006, the now popular “arts district” on Calle Ocho was not the popular tourist or tourism destination it is now. We had just two souvenir shops, and no one was leading walking tours on a regular basis except Dr. Paul George, who offered free tours (and still offers free tours) once a month during Viernes Culturales, the arts festival I directed back in 2006.
Just outside its ventanita, El Exquisito had a water fountain popular among the domino players in nearby Domino Park; El Pub had a water cooler on the counter of its ventanita. Across the street from El Pub, men used to play games of dominos on a portable card table.
Gone is the water fountain, the water cooler, the card table. They have been replaced by plastic water bottles (and water only available inside), slick interiors, and yet another rooster statue.
During the daytime, Calle Ocho has become a theme park mobbed by tourists. Why doesn’t El Pub have its longtime water cooler anymore? As fellow resident and guide Anneliese Morales suggests... it’s likely because of the more than a hundred visitors at a time that descend from the tour buses that now park in front of El Pub."
No neighborhood stays the same. Change is something to be expected. And locals are glad that the district now has more crosswalks for pedestrians, more options for nightlife, and many more restaurants. Increasingly, however, locals are beginning to wonder how much the district still caters to those who live here year round: those who pay the taxes invested in improvement to this commercial corridor.
Tour bus stops have taken up parking spaces where anyone used to be able to park. Souvenir shops have inundated the area. Our elderly residents and parents with strollers have become particularly inconvenienced by constantly over-crowded sidewalks.
Local tour guides now have to compete with dozens of guides in the area at the same time, making the logistics of tour guiding a nightmare. Moreover, anyone can lead a tour of Little Havana, even if they’re inventing stories about it! Buses double park in the area, which can make driving and walking on Calle Ocho a nerve-wracking (and dangerous) experience, even with the new crosswalks.
It’s time for tourism regulations!
When this district was first envisioned back in the 1970s, it was part of plans for a Latin Quarter: a project of the Little Havana Development Authority (LHDA). LHDA founders wanted the area to become as popular as the French Quarter in New Orleans. We can all agree that it has achieved that goal.
As a guest on one of my tours noted, however, the French Quarter has tourism regulations! They have regulations for motor coaches and for tour guides. Can we not do the same?
In New Orleans, portions of the French Quarter are “No Bus Zones.” Loading and unloading is limited to 15 minutes, and buses cannot idle for longer than ten minutes while stopped or parked. Buses must have permits. Tour guides must be certified. See these and other regulations at their website: www.neworleans.com/groups.
I suggest that Little Havana create its own Tourism Advisory Board. This entity could focus on developing regulations that favor residents, and I contend that it would also benefit local merchants and even tourists themselves. How?
Right now, the cheapening of the district is turning off the tourists most likely to spend their money at our local establishments and stay in the area for a day or more. We want to welcome everyone, but tourists who visit just to take a few photos, buy a $5 souvenir at a single shop and leave after about 15 minutes are doing very little to “contribute to our local economy.”
Moreover, out-of-town tour operators hire their own guides (who may know very little about Little Havana), and may steer tourists only to certain stores where guides receive commissions. When this is the case, where is the economic benefit for local residents, including locally based tour guides, let alone our shops and restaurants that do not offer commission?
When local merchants are coerced into offering commissions to tour guides, then they have to make up for this commission by raising their prices, making their business cost-prohibitive for locals. Moreover, if only a few merchants are benefitting from the huge influx of tour buses, we must ask why we tax-paying residents must suffer the consequences of this influx (e.g., traffic, congestion, lost parking spaces) without receiving any benefit for ourselves.
Our taxes are paying for the millions of dollars that have been invested in Little Havana’s district: millions that have not gone into other, needier areas of the neighborhood. If the Calle Ocho district is no longer welcoming to residents, however, then we are not getting our return on investment! We deserve to know how efforts at making the district pedestrian friendly and “beautified” are actually benefitting residents, if more and more shops are catering exclusively to tourists.
Again, I call for thoughtful regulations developed by a new Little Havana Tourism Advisory Board. Your thoughts and ideas on this topic are welcome.