St. Louis Cemetery #1, on the edge of the French Quarter, is one of the city’s premiere attractions for tourists.
Opened in 1789 as a replacement for the St. Peter cemetery, which was deconsecrated in order to allow the residential development of the block bounded by N. Rampart, St. Peter, Burgundy, and Toulouse streets, St. Louis #1 is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans. Its most famous resident is Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau (the third most visited tomb in the country behind Elvis and JFK), but it also serves as the final resting place of civil rights pioneers Homer Plessy and Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, among other notable historical figures such as Bernard de Marigny and Paul Morphy. Nicholas Cage’s future tomb is also a big draw. The cemetery’s age and unique above ground burial tombs have long attracted visitors, especially after it was featured in the classic counter-culture film, Easy Rider (1969).
In 2015, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which owns the cemetery, began restricting access to it. Tourists were required to be accompanied by a licensed tour guide. In addition to having a city issued tour guide permit, guides had to also be licensed by the Archdiocese. Tour Operators paid fees to the Archdiocese for the permits as well as $1.00 per person they brought into the cemetery. Prior to COVID, 100,000 people visited St. Louis #1 annually.
The 2015 restrictions were not popular, but most in the tourism industry understood the need for them. At the time, a number of unlicensed “tour guides” would loiter in the cemetery and offer tourists a free tour in exchange for a tip. These “guides” were often ill-informed and dispensed a lot of inaccurate information. In addition, some would reach into dilapidated tombs and pull out bones for tourists to gawk at. In addition, Marie Laveau’s tomb was desecrated daily by people scratching or drawing three “X”s on the vault. The restrictions worked well and were in place until Spring of 2020.
With the city shut down because of the COVID pandemic, the Archdiocese shut down St. Louis #1 to all tours and remains closed today. By early 2021, the Archdiocese began considering awarding the cemetery concession to just one company and, in May, heard at least two proposals from competing tour companies. Ultimately, the contract was awarded to Cemetery Tours NOLA, owned by local hotelier Michael Valentino. Valentino also owns the Hop-On Hop-Off tour bus line which is based out of the Basin Street Station adjacent to the cemetery.
Word that Valentino had been awarded exclusive rights to the cemetery sent shock waves throughout the tourism industry. Critics immediately pointed to the lack of transparency in the bidding process. Many tour operators were not even aware the Archdiocese was accepting proposals for the exclusive contract. Some African-American tour guides alleged the selection process excluded people of color. In addition to the 40+ tour companies whose bottom lines were affected by the decision, Save Our Cemeteries, a local charity that restores tombs in cemeteries throughout the city, was horrified since most of its restoration work is funded by tours of St. Louis #1. At the time of the announcement, one board member of Save Our Cemeteries said, “From the reactions I have heard all around—including the Save Our Cemeteries board last night—I am sure that the Archdiocese has had to take their phones off the hook. It stinks to high heaven.”
Witches Brew Tours, a company owned by Thomas Cook, recently filed a federal lawsuit against the Archdiocese alleging the exclusive contract is illegal. The tour company is not seeking damages but, rather, access to the cemetery. Current state law states that “relatives and friends” have the right to visit and maintain the tombs of their loved ones. The tour company is arguing for a broad and loose definition of “friend.” A more meritorious assertion in the lawsuit concerns price-fixing, which is illegal.
Jordan Hobson, who manages Witches Brew Tours, says they filed the lawsuit only after repeated attempts to meet with the Archdiocese and Valentino were unsuccessful. In addition to the lawsuit, Hobson has also founded the Association of Cemetery Tour Guides and Companies. Hobson maintains, “By Louisiana law, every cemetery IS a public cemetery, meaning that the public should have free and reasonable access to it. The Archdiocese, for years, has been working toward more control and limiting access to those who pay for the “privilege” of visiting the dead.” For more information, please visit freepubliccemeteries.org