Considering the fact that The Bronx has been revitalized by the local community, organizations, activists and religious groups since the 1970’s, bringing it back from great destruction to the thriving borough that it is today, it should come as no surprise that sustainable tourism was first organized by a local Bronx business entrepreneur.
Committed to working within the guidelines and goals of sustainable tourism set by the United Nations, within the community, Bronx HIstorical Tours’ founder, Alexandra Maruri was not only the first to recognize the immense value in all The Bronx has to offer both locals and visitors from around the globe in what it possesses in historical sites, neighborhoods and cultural significance with the establishment of her company in 2011, but she was ahead of her time in making sustainable tourism her number one priority.
Like many other important things in our society today, “Sustainable Tourism” has become a buzz word for those looking to capitalize on the attention given to this topic. But, it’s up for debate as to how many businesses that offer tours throughout The Bronx really understand the basic tenets of approaching tourism in a way that puts the community first and equally important is whether or not their “commitment” is personally motivated because they are also residents of the community.
Tourists coming to The Big Apple are realizing through increased press coverage and articles about The Bronx, like this one, that there is more to the New York City experience than the island of Manhattan. They do not realize that blazing the trail and establishing The Bronx as a place that is filled with an abundance to see and experience was no easy task considering the negative and harmful press coverage this borough received for close to five decades since the 1970’s. What visitors desire is a way to see as much of the city as possible, including the newly, positively reflected Bronx.
Tour companies, namely those based in Manhattan, that offer bus service to tours in the quaint and historical Little Italy in the Belmont section, for example are gaining the attention of New York City tourists, capitalizing on the groundwork and success of Ms. Maruri and her foresightedness about Bronx tourism.
However, the question remains, do these companies know the neighborhood from first-hand experience? Are they committed to the growth and flourishing of the local businesses and establishments? Do they instill a sense of respect for the local culture and lifestyle of the residents and additionally, (but certainly not least) do they understand how to navigate mass tourism in an area that is not accustomed to it?
When it comes to Sustainable Tourism, the overriding factors are always steeped in Preservation and Economy, because without an understanding on how to preserve the community and stimulate the economy, tourism is only benefiting the tour companies.
Take for example the sudden and mass interest in the South Bronx with the release of the motion picture, The Joker. With many fans from all over wanting to visit the area that is featured in this movie, there has developed some controversy about how such mass visitations affect the community, which flows into the issue of sustainable tourism and the guidelines to its achievement.
Long before this recent interest in the South Bronx, Maruri was offering tours throughout this area, three of which are currently ongoing, An Insider's Guide to the South Bronx, Introduction to The Bronx 101, and South Bronx Historic Tour. Most importantly, two of her key business practices include first and foremost, setting standards for a responsible visitor and encouraging support for small businesses in the area.
And that is not all. Integral to her business are eleven principles of sustainable tourism set forth by the U.N., all of which she has built her business upon, with a growing commitment everyday, especially with the arrival of outside tour companies and experts who claim to understand the best way to bring sustainable tourism to The Bronx.
According to Ms. Maruri, “Since starting Bronx Historical Tours eight years ago, there was never a question about implementing the principles of sustainable tourism and I was the first to adhere to the requirements and goals set by the United Nations. I see myself as a champion for the local businesses and the community, and my goal is to help the economy of The Bronx flourish, all while highlighting the historical significance of the neighborhood.”
She goes on, “It’s all about respect for the community and preserving the culture, namely, the South Bronx, which has come under full view with the release of The Joker. So we always remain conscious of the effects of mass tourism, keeping the footprint minimized throughout our borough and in the process strive to change the perception of The Bronx.”
This approach is clearly working because Maruri has garnered the attention of many respected people in the community, including Samuel Brooks, President of the Mott Haven Historical Districts Association (MHHDA), with whom she has developed a working partnership for the past five years. “We partner with MHHDA to enhance the way people look at The Bronx - we are a community, not a movie set, but a historical and cultural place filled with very humble people.”
Mr. Brooks has also seen the Borough transform from the ruination of decades past to present day when there is a renewed interest in the history of the communities of The Bronx. He sees Ms. Maruri as the trailblazer for Bronx tourism. “Alexandra developed the model for sustainable tourism in our borough. From Little Italy to the South Bronx to Mott Haven and City Island, she knows everyone, and ties her tours into the local business community in an effort to build and expand their businesses.”
Maruri herself recounts how prior to beginning her tour business, she literally went door to door throughout the various Bronx neighborhoods, where she had grown up in and frequented since her arrival to the United States in the early 1970’s as a little girl and discussed her entrepreneurial vision for developing the first-ever Bronx tours. Wanting to create a mutually beneficial enterprise, she shared her goal of building awareness and appreciation of The Bronx’s unique history and culture while simultaneously bringing awareness and patronage to local businesses.
“It was important to me that I had their support, after all, these communities are my home and the local merchants were like family,” says Maruri, “and I expect nothing less than great respect from all of my tourists as they take the time to tour with me and learn about our rich history.”
Mr. Brooks recounted how Maruri single-handedly forged ahead with her vision, when many in The Bronx thought she was crazy to take on such a formidable endeavor on her own. “She is authentic about her concern and love for the communities of The Bronx and sharing that love with her clients. Many of her tours are one-on-one and her public tours never exceed ten people, out of respect for the area.”
Interestingly, almost all clients ask two similar questions when touring with Maruri - Are you from The Bronx and How long have you lived here, which is a clear indication that visitors are quite sophisticated and want the real deal when exploring the Borough. According to Maruri, “My clientele want to hear not only the facts about The Bronx and the places we visit, but also the personal stories of someone who has and continues to live The Bronx experience and is passionate about sharing it.”
Taking her childhood experiences in the places she built memories and sharing it to benefit the community with visitors from all around the globe is what sustainable tourism is all about!
Till next time,
Elisa is a travel blogger and freelance writer. She is co-founder of TravelinCousins.com travel blog and writes a weekly column for ThisIsTheBronx.info.