Ethnic tourism: How to globe-trot at home

Houston joins other cities in pushing 'tours' of local enclaves - the quirky and overlooked sites.

Pat Ligon has lived in Houston for 33 years and is seeing more of the city this morning than in all those decades combined. She is on Houston's inaugural multicultural bus tour, which has just stopped in front of America's largest Buddhist temple.

Ms. Ligon gingerly takes off her shoes before entering, and is immediately captivated by the sights and smells inside. On instruction from the master monk, she offers a prayer to the Buddha Guandi, then places a stick of incense in the urn before him.

"I knew there were all these different ethnic communities in Houston, but I never felt an invitation to come and visit," she says, slipping her shoes back on before boarding the bus. "Now I will definitely come back."

The tour, called "The Neighborhoods Alive: Houston's Multicultural Tour," is intended to showcase the city's rich ethnic and artistic heritage. It allows visitors to glimpse a different side of this city where 90 languages are spoken - a cultural cornucopia that's been largely ignored as a tourist draw, in favor of surefire attractions like NASA and the glitzy Galleria Mall.

And the tours aren't just for tourists. They're also intended for longtime residents like Ms. Ligon, who want to learn about their city's diversity but are daunted to do so on their own.

The incidental tourist

The concept is starting to catch on around the country after taking root in Chicago in 1997. Philadelphia and Houston are experimenting with pilot programs and other cities are expressing interest - all in hopes of transforming tourism, taking visitors beyond shopping meccas and sporting events and into neighborhoods to find out what, and who, makes a city tick.

"Tourists are getting very sophisticated. They are looking for a much broader experience: to go beyond downtown destinations and get a fuller sense of what a city's about," says Juana Guzman, a consultant on Houston's multicultural tour. She created Chicago's neighborhood tours, which began with nine separate tours and now include 18.

Ms. Guzman is onto something with her talk of a fresh zest for cultured, and multicultural, journeys: 81 percent of Americans who traveled in the past year included some kind of arts, historic, or heritage activity, according to a study released last month by the Travel Industry Association of America. That's up 13 percent since 1996.

While part of it may be a more sophisticated traveler, part of it is due to Sept. 11 and a sluggish economy that's pushing Americans to keep more of their globe-trotting closer to home. That means many tourists are returning to cities they've already visited - but, once there, want different experiences.

"There are only so many times you can go to New York City and see the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building," says Justin McNaull, with the national office of the American Automobile Association. Tourists have always looked at cities as a way to find out how people used to live, he says, but they're increasingly interested in how they live now. It's like a living history exhibit - before the present becomes the past.

A way to join the renaissance

Harlem Heritage Tours are a good example. Begun in 1998, the focus is not only to "learn about and celebrate Harlem's past, but to participate in the cultural and economic renaissance taking hold," say brochures. Among tours offered are gospel, poetry, and hip hop.

Back in Houston, the bus pulls out from the Guandi Buddhist temple and heads south into the Third Ward, a heavily African-American section. Next stop: Project Row Houses, restored shotgun shacks showing works by black artists.

During the course of the day, visitors will have a chance to see a little of Houston's Hispanic, Asian, and African-American neighborhoods. It's just the tip of the iceberg in a city where 77 countries have consulates.

If successful, Houston will create individual tours for many of its ethnic groups, which is no small task: The Middle Eastern community here is one of the fastest-growing in the US, for instance, and the Vietnamese community is the second largest.

'You forget how much there is'

Today, as the bus passes through Freedman's Town, an area built by freed slaves after the Civil War, tour director Keith Rosen explains that the first public school in Texas was located here - and it educated blacks, not whites. He draws attention to the Islamic mosque built by former Houston Rocket Hakeem Olajuwon; the Catholic church where parishioners attend mariachi services, the beer-can statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts school; and the Pig Stand restaurant, with its heaping helpings of Southern fare.

"We can spend our whole lives in a city and not know all that it has to offer," says Mr. Rosen. Some on the bus nod vigorously and beam in anticipation of the next Houston treasure.

As the tour winds down and the bus pulls back to city hall, Christopher and Sonia Foster step off with their 2-month-old baby girl. After 18 years in Houston, they can't wait to share it anew. "When you live in a predominantly white neighborhood, you forget how much diversity there is," says Mr. Foster. "We are definitely going back to explore some more."

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