September 7, 2019 The bus tours and insensitive tourists
The Post has a story today about the crazy tourism situation in Williamsburg. Let me make it clear that this is related to the bus tours, not my own small, eleven person group walking tour. I wish people wouldn’t conflate the two! The people on my groups are so thoughtful, open minded and respectful. I think tourism is always going to be on an ethical grey line at best (you are invading the locals, always) but the stereotypical bus tours with their cameras and mockery are no good.
These bus tours have been going on for a while, but things have gotten a lot more unbearable with time. Every day, a circulating cast of huge charter busses pull up on Lee Avenue, drop their tourists off for a bit of gawking, staring, photography and selfie-stick work, and then quickly take the tourists away to their next “sensational” stop. These buses are part of a type of tour called Contrasts of New York (or Contrastes de Nueva York in Spanish), or it might be called the TriBoro Tour. It’s a tour type that is popular with Spaniards and is offered by a lot of different tour companies. They are designed to show these bus-bound people the bold differences of New York City – all in a half-day bus ride from the Bronx to the Brooklyn Bridge. As a part of that, they stop in the “Jewish Quarters”, where they are told various stereotypes and sensational stuff, like that the bars on the windows are meant to keep the Jewish money safe or that Hasidic couples have sex with a hole in the sheet.
Two weeks ago on Sunday, I was on Lee Avenue where the tours stop and in one hour, it seems eight big charter buses pulled up and spilled people out for this routine. Since many Hasidim were still away for the summer, the streets were fairly empty, so about eight tourists gathered around a tourist with a camera, and encouraged the photographer as he filmed a Hasid walking towards them. I felt so angry at the basic disregard for this person’s right to walk the street without being someone’s project, I felt so furious for his helplessness, that I couldn’t hold it in. I asked them “aren’t you ashamed?” They shrugged, said no English. I said again, with mostly gestures, and then they got it, and scuttled off.
Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on me that I should be the one reprimanding the tourists, when I am after all also a tour guide in this neighborhood. But see, as a tour guide, I would never allow my tourists to behave this way. I know that I am going to be lumped together with the bad actors of tours in Williamsburg, especially to the Hasidim. In fact, because I am the only result when anyone googles “Hasidic Williamsburg Tours”, I’ve often been the target of the Hasidic frustrations about tourism. Some time ago I read a conversation on a Yiddish forum where a few men plainly decided to do something about tourism by organizing to leave me bad reviews, and I still have some bad reviews on my products because I couldn’t get Google and TripAdvisor to remove it.
But my anger is mostly with the tourists, who make respectful tourism near impossible with their absurd circus. It’s worth trying to understand people different from us. I maintain that there is value in learning about other communities. But bad give us all (especially me!) a really really bad reputation.