NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Every Saturday morning a small group of bright-eyed tourists on bicycles rolls up to Marie's Bar in the Faubourg Marigny.
They park their cruisers, gather around the sidewalk tables and sip on water, beer and bloody Marys. Just a few hours earlier, the tiny bar was filled with a crazed cross-section of bohemians, hipsters, gutter punks and hardened drinkers who decades ago bid a fond farewell to good health.
Marie's is a locals' bar that few tourists know exist and even fewer would dare to enter.
But a burgeoning bike tour industry has stretched the reach of visitors beyond well-known neighborhoods accessible by walking tours or streetcars, introducing tourists to previously undiscovered sections of the city.
Lycia Ferguson, co-owner of Confederacy of Cruisers, which always makes a stop at Marie's during its downtown tour, said part of her inspiration for starting the business came from working in bars where she spent a lot of time telling tourists where to go and what to do.
"I would tell them how to get out and see different parts of New Orleans - that more existed than just the French Quarter," she said.
There are currently four bicycle tour companies. The newest, Freewheelin' Bike Tours, opened in late April.
Ryan Bergeron, owner of American Bicycle Rental Co., said people came into his Burgundy Street shop every day asking if he provided tours. The three existing companies - Confederacy of Cruisers, Big Easy Bike Tours and Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours - were always booked, leaving a large, untapped pool of customers. That's when he decided to open Freewheelin' Bike Tours.
"It's a really good business to get into because it's not labor or capital intensive. It makes sense monetarily," Bergeron said. "If you look at any of the major markets, they have well-established companies that have been giving bike tours for well over a decade. But like everything else in New Orleans, we're late adopters."
Confederacy of Cruisers, at 634 Elysian Fields Ave., opened in April 2008. Ferguson and her partner, Jeff Shyman, started with five bikes and a couple of tour guides and now have more than 40 bikes and six guides. They lead up to eight groups a day at a cost of $45 per person for the three-hour Creole tour. Other trips, such as the history of drinking tour, cost up to $80 per person and include alcohol.
Confederacy of Cruisers concentrates mainly on the Bywater, Marigny and Treme with a heavy focus on each neighborhood's history.
The tours have become so popular that they regularly sell out, but Ferguson is reluctant to expand.
"We try to be respectful of the neighborhoods and we think what we're sending out now is bordering on too much," she said. "We don't want to overtake the streets and we don't want to become obnoxious. We think about that a lot."
Confederacy of Cruisers limits its groups to eight people. If they do expand, it will be into other neighborhoods such as Uptown.
"That way we can take a little bit of the burden off the Marigny, Bywater and Treme," Ferguson said.
Neighborhood reaction to the bike tours has been largely positive, but there have been signs of discontent.
"We recently had someone post a note on their fence that said, `Bike tour, please don't stop here. I work late and sleep late.' It was a very cool and a really nice way to go about it, so we don't stop there anymore," Ferguson said.
When Bergeron lived overseas during his service in the military, he spent time in Germany, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands, countries where bicycling was extremely popular.
That inspired him to open his rental company 14 months ago and subsequently the tour business.
"New Orleans is very much like Amsterdam so it didn't make sense to me why we didn't have more bikes on the street," he said. "It's so flat here so you don't have to work hard to pedal a bike, and you can stop on any corner and talk to people. I wanted to bring that culture here, to be out on the streets instead of isolated in your car."
Given the growing popularity of the bike tours and the relatively small number of businesses providing this service, Bergeron expects to see more companies in the coming years.
"But after about five years, I think you'll see a leveling off. This is one of those kinds of jobs where you have to treat people really well and have a quality tour otherwise they will sink your ship real quick with the Internet. I think if you see people getting into it just for the profit and the quick money, you'll see them falter very quickly."
Information from: New Orleans CityBusiness, http://www.neworleanscitybusiness.com