Marketing Mardi Gras: Heritage Tourism in Rural Acadiana

By Ware, Carolyn E. | Western Folklore, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Marketing Mardi Gras: Heritage Tourism in Rural Acadiana


Ware, Carolyn E., Western Folklore


Cultural tourism in Acadiana has generally lagged behind better-known parts of the state.1 Barry Ancelet commented a decade ago that New Orleans and plantation country have dominated Louisiana tourism, but "Cajun country just next door has only recently begun to gear up its tourism potential" (Ancelet 1992, 256) .Thus, in the past, Mardi Gras promotions centered mainly on New Orleans' public parades, while other Mardi Gras traditions maintained lower tourism profiles.

Mardi Gras is, in fact, big business for Louisiana's tourism industry. As the state's signature festival, Mardi Gras has long been an important tourist attraction and source of income. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, the festival's statewide economic impact exceeds a billion dollars a year (January 7, 2003). New Orleans accounts for much of this intake, but recent years have seen a shift in Mardi Gras promotion and tourism. Acadiana's rural counrs de Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras runs) now offer visitors an alternative to big-city parades, and the region has seen a steady rise in country Mardi Gras tourism over the last two decades.

Flyers, glossy brochures, web sites, and printed visitor guides all seek to attract-and to various degrees educate-a broad audience. Some materials are produced by state or parish tourism offices, others by travel agents, journalists, festival promoters, chambers of commerce, and a community college. Mardi Gras tourism has been a financial boon to small towns in Acadiana. Many French Louisianians feel that tourism has also helped stimulate local interest in the country Mardi Gras and improved its public image. On the other hand, Shane Bernard suggests that some Cajuns have reacted to the "incursion" of tourists by withdrawing from local Mardi Gras festivities (2003).

Mardi Gras, like all traditional festivals, is dynamic as well as conservative (Toelken 1996). Counrs de Mardi Gras are elastic, constantly adapting to new circumstances, and tourism is just one such circumstance. However, the impetus for tourism often comes from town officials and entrepreneurs, not Mardi Gras maskers and their captains. As tourism introduces Mardi Gras runs to a new audience, issues of public presentation, cultural conservation, and guardianship of tradition inevitably surface (Ware 2003). These questions, as Frank de Garo notes, are "much on people's minds these days and are concerns not only of scholars" (1991:1-2). Tourism authorities, municipal officials, community organizers, and Mardi Gras participants all work to find a balance between promoting community-based courin and overwhelming them.

This essay explores the possibilities and tensions between tourism and Mardi Gras runs, and how the tradition is being redefined for the tourist market. I first look at how tourism literature constructs a distinctive image for the rural Mardi Gras by contrasting it to the New Orleans Carnival, its main competitor. Next, I turn to the development of Mardi Gras tourism in two Acadiana towns, Eunice and Iota. In both places, organizers fashion specific identities and tourism niches by promoting selected aspects of their local courirs. Often, they oppose their own events not only to urban parades, but to other Cajun runs.

Cultural tourism has played an important part in my own involvement with the country Mardi Gras tradition. I was first introduced to the celebration in 1988 as a graduate folklore student visiting the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. When the Tee Mamou-Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Festival, then entering its second year, received grant funding to enhance cultural interpretation, I was hired to conduct fieldwork on Acadia Parish Mardi Gras traditions, write text for a festival guide, and program narrative stage sessions. Fifteen years later, I still make frequent fieldwork visits to Acadiana, follow rural Mardi Gras runs each year, and collaborate with Cajun Mardi Gras participants on public programs. Many of my interviews over the years have touched on dilemmas of public representation.

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