A rising tide lifts all boats. But can a boat lift Black and brown employment? Big City Tourism President Kareem Holmes thinks his vessel—the Franklin D. Roosevelt—is up to the task through ferry tours given the Hudson to the East River.

“If a person registers for a company, LLC corporation, or sole proprietorship as a ticket-selling business, they get a license that allows them to buy, sell, and trade tickets in a public space throughout New York City,” he said. “Then there’s tour guides. You can acquire any one of these licenses down at the [NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection; DCWP]. I knew it would be great for my community.

“A lot of my friends and family [didn’t] complete school. Some of them have a felony record. It’s hard for them to get a good job. What I learned is that the city does have opportunities down at the DCWP for people like myself.”

As a result of that information, Holmes started Big City Tourism, the city’s only Black-owned business on the water. It’s a family business, with his wife and son both on board with the ferry tours—literally and figuratively. The company boasts an authentic local experience—tour guides and ticket sellers are unabashedly native New Yorkers and Holmes said most of his staff are Black and brown. That background plays into the tours’ experience, allowing guests to engage with not only the city but also the people who live there.

Holmes’s own story starts as a third-generation Lower East Side resident in the Jacob Riis Houses. Back then, he would stare out at the East River from his bedroom window or on picnics with his mom. Now it helps Holmes pay the bills.

But his entrepreneurial journey took some trial-and-error. Holmes is formerly incarcerated himself. He said he turned his life around after leaving jail, but felt unappreciated at his initial audience development job, so he left New York City for Virginia and ended up investing in a taxi cab company that provided future seed money for Big City Tourism.
Holmes spent a few years studying the tourism industry in his hometown.

“I realized the bottom level of tourism are immigrants and African Americans selling the tickets for these big companies, pushing all the money to the top, but [the companies] wouldn’t really give anything back,” he said. “I knew there was a place we needed to have a Black-owned business, so I created Big City Tourism so we can have something fresh.”

He acquired the Franklin D. Roosevelt thanks to a “Shark Tank”-esque audition with local transportation giant NY Waterway. Big City Tourism launched its “Freedom Liberty Tour” last July. The boat ride travels a loop from Hudson River Park to under the Brooklyn Bridge before snaking past the Statue of Liberty and Governor’s Island.

NY Waterway is pretty thrilled with the investment. “The Franklin D. Roosevelt is the most advanced ferry in our fleet and represents our vision of the future of the harbor,” said NY Waterway chair Armand Pohan by email. “We are delighted to share that vision with a high-energy partner like Kareem, who is committed to bringing the sights and sounds of the harbor to visitors from all over the world.

“We immediately understood and admired what he and the Big City Tourism team set out to do, and we believe in their efforts to boost tourism as the region continues to bounce back from the pandemic.”

Holmes’s ferry even doubled as a rescue boat last winter: The Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to a Staten Island Ferry fire in December and was used to evacuate passengers. But the tour promises an authentic New York City experience, so it was back to business moments after the chaos.

“It’s [a] pretty amazing experience because the tour guide was still talking to people boarding [and] making them feel comfortable,” said Holmes, laughing. “Got them over to land and got them [to] safety. Dropped them off at Staten Island. Then we continued with our cruise.”

For more information, go to: www.bigcitytourism.com or email kholmes@bigcitytourism.com.

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.

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