Friday, April 17, 2009

Underbelly Tours

One tour that's been getting a lot of press lately has been the NYC Underbelly tour of the South Bronx, conducted by Curtis Sliwa, radio personality and founder of the Guardian Angels (remember them?). I haven't taken the tour so I can't comment on the content - some people like it, some don't. But what I am curious about is if this is a financially viable tour.

My general gut reaction is no. You make money one way in tourism - you cater to tourists. All guides have their particular interests, and love doing their own off-the-beaten-path type tours, but almost always the market just isn't there. Guides like to think they're educators, and that their job is to get tourists interested in the things they don't know. While this is a noble pursuit, it's not a money-making one. And for every person who's going to walk around the Bronx with Curtis Sliwa (or go on any other kind of niche tour), there's 1000 who want to ride a double-decker bus and see the Empire State Building.

Now, I'm not saying that these kind of tours can't be a somewhat profitable and enjoyable side-job (and Sliwa's pay-what-you-wish model can make you more money than a set rate, but that's another post). After all, the only investment you need is time and a little marketing. But it's certainly not something anyone gets rich off of. Even the most successful of the independent owner-operators only manage to create a full-time job for themselves, and sometimes not even that. And any kind of special interest tour generally has to marketed as extremely high-end and expensive in order to be profitable.

The more comfortable tourists get, the less they want tour guides. And many niche tours are things that appeal mostly to locals. The type of tourist that's going to want to go on a walking tour of the South Bronx - in my experience, this is generally the young Euro set - is usually going to be comfortable doing it by themselves. And locals? What kind of self-respecting New Yorker is going to be suckered into paying someone to schlep around their own town?

However, there have been a couple very successful niche tours - chief among them the Sex and the City Tour, and the Hip-Hop tour. Even though they have different subject matter, they have more or less the same business model: buses, minor celebrities as tour guides (Sex and the City guides have to be working actresses, and the regular Hip-Hop Tour guides are Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, and Grandmaster Caz), and a subject that has the appeal to tourists of introducing them to a kind of real-life, make-believe land that they have only seen on TV before.

The question is whether or not this tour has the same appeal. Curtis Sliwa is a recognized name in New York, but I don't think anyone out-of-town would consider him a minor celebrity. And there's not the comfortability of a bus - instead you're using a combination of the subway and your feet. However, the third criteria they have in spades - maybe even enough to make up for the lack of the first two. Not only is there always a certain voyeuristic fascination for "how the other half lives" (best evidenced in the Favela Tours of Rio), but the less dangerous and more sterile New York gets, the more there's an interest in the days when it wasn't. And you can combine this with the fact that it's way easier to take people around to places like the South Bronx now. After all, no idiot would actually give a tour of somewhere where you actually have to worry about people mugging your tourists. While Sliwa advertises safety because he brings along one Guardian Angel for every two tourists, the reality is everyone would be perfectly safe with just him.

So will you actually see the "Underbelly?" Like I said, I haven't taken the tour, but I highly doubt it. That's not to say it's not a good tour. I love the South Bronx, and think it's a very underutilized tourist area for a lot of different reasons. And quite honestly, this is the only way to market this type of tour, because as offensive and annoying as it is, the ghetto appeal is the only real reason why 95% of tourists are interested in the South Bronx (there's the Hip-Hop aspect also, which in my mind is very different, but is basically part of the ghetto appeal for most tourists). But I will tell you this for all tourists out there: As a tour guide, and as a traveler, you cannot see the "secret" or "hidden" or "insider" (which are highly relative terms anyway) through anyone you can google and hire on the Internet, no matter how they market themselves. Cities are not that easy. Nor should they be. Invest some time and energy in a city and its people, and they will reward you - and usually for free.

If you want a good cultural tour of the South Bronx, call up The Point, which does an excellent Mambo-to-Hip-Hop South Bronx tour.

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