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Desperately seeking tourists: N.O. awaiting return of visitors

Most tourist destinations have reopened

11:43 AM CDT on Monday, July 31, 2006

Alan Sayre / Associated Press

Masks and other souvenirs sit in a shop window in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Even though most of the shops are back, few tourists have been around to spend money.

The areas where tourists go largely escaped devastation -- and are anxiously awaiting visitors to come and spend money.

Plenty of hotel rooms are again available, most of New Orleans' world-renowned restaurants are open, events such as Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest are back and the city is reassembling its national sports presence centered around the Louisiana Superdome and New Orleans Arena.

Although the hot, humid months of summer are typically the city's slow season, tourism officials say there's more than ample evidence -- from their cash registers -- that word hasn't gotten out. "Right now, we're hunkered down for a slow summer," said Darrius Gray, general manager of the Holiday Inn-French Quarter and president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association. "It's slower than usual."

On a recent sultry day on Bourbon Street, Matt Buddenborg of the Detroit area took in the trademark tourist street on his first day in town. "To tell you the truth, I thought it would be messy," he said. "It's really well put-together."

David Clay of Casper, Wyo., on a road trip through the South with Buddenborg, said he'd heard that tourists areas were solid but was still surprised by what he saw.

"I was expecting more disaster, but it looks pretty nice," Clay said.

With the city still reeling from Katrina, and hotel rooms packed with emergency workers and displaced residents, a scaled-back Mardi Gras was held in February, attracting an estimated 700,000 people. In April and May, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival returned with Shell Exploration & Production Co., a major employer in the region, sponsoring the music event. The two-weekend Jazz Fest drew 350,000.

By comparison, in the past, a million people typically attend the culmination of the Carnival season, and the 2003 Jazz Fest attracted an estimated 503,000 spectators.

Next year's Fat Tuesday celebration, the final day of Mardi Gras, is set for Feb. 20.

A third big event -- the annual Essence Festival -- moved to Houston this summer because of hurricane repairs to the Superdome. It's not known yet if the festival will return to the city in 2007, though talks are under way.

The city's all-important convention business -- a $9.6 billion annual economic boost before Katrina -- got back on track in late June when the American Library Association brought 18,000 delegates to town and garnered rave reviews from participants. However, the next big meeting is not slated until the fall.

Frommer's recently published what it claims is the first comprehensive guide to the city since Katrina. Mary Herczog, author of "Portable New Orleans," said that for the average tourist interested in areas such as the French Quarter, Central Business District and Garden District, little has changed as a result of Katrina.

In the book, she also recommends Christmas as an ideal but overlooked time to visit the city, noting the mild weather; holiday displays like "Celebration in the Oaks," when lights illuminate City Park; and a grand New Year's Eve party that includes a countdown in Jackson Square.

From haunted house tours and vampire balls to the Voodoo music festival (Oct. 28-29), even Halloween is a draw for tourists to this city and its historic cemeteries. In southern Louisiana, October is also one of the driest months of the year with moderate temperatures.

"The message I'm getting from businesses over and over is we need the tourists," said Herczog, a California resident who keeps a home in New Orleans. "They want to feed them, they want to sell them stuff, they want to tell them stories. The future of the city hinges on that more than anything else."

Currently, the New Orleans metropolitan market has just under 28,000 hotel rooms -- 10,000 shy of the pre-Katrina total. About 1,150 are expected to return in the fall with the opening of a hotel at the downtown casino and the reopening of the Ritz Carlton and Iberville Suites hotels, Gray said.

"We're poised and ready to go," Gray said. "We just need to show people we can accommodate all kinds and sizes of groups."

Although many restaurants have not reopened, virtually all the "name" eateries that tourists flock to in the French Quarter and Garden District are up and running, said Tom Weatherly of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. They include Arnaud's, Antoine's, Brennan's and Bayona.

The business of hosting major sporting events -- a key to future tourism -- has been redeveloped quickly.

The NFL's Saints, who played last season in San Antonio and Baton Rouge, La., return to the Superdome for a Monday night game Sept. 25 against the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints have sold a record 55,000 season tickets in anticipation of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, the team's No. 1 draft choice, playing in the backfield. The Superdome is currently undergoing a $185 million post-hurricane repair and facelift.

The Sugar Bowl will be staged in the Superdome on Jan. 3 -- with a new sponsor, Allstate Corp. -- after being held this year in Atlanta. In 2008, the Sugar Bowl will be the national collegiate football championship game.

In a major post-Katrina announcement, the NBA named the New Orleans Arena the site for the league's 2008 All-Star Game. The NBA's Hornets plan to play 35 home games in Oklahoma City this upcoming season -- with six in New Orleans -- before returning to the city full-time for the 2007-08 season.

"That indicates people at high levels in professional and amateur sports have confidence the infrastructure they need will be here," said Bill Curl, a spokesman for the Superdome and Arena. For those who want to get away from the tourist areas and see, firsthand, the rubble left behind by Katrina, there's Gray Line's tour of devastated areas, which for the company has been a welcome boost to the slow summer season. Since its start earlier this year, at least 10,000 people have taken the tour, said Gray Line executive Julee Pearce.

"The Katrina tour is still hanging in there," Pearce said. "It's enabled us to stay above water."

Out of each $35 tour ticket, Gray Line has been donating $3 to Katrina-related charities.

Flying into New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport, impossible right after the storm, is getting easier. Airlines are running 107 daily flights, compared with 166 before Katrina. That number is expected to hit 111 in mid-September.

By the end of the year, the Port of New Orleans, which home-ported four cruise ships before Katrina, will have three again based out of the city, making trips to the western Caribbean. Work will be completed in September on a new $37 million cruise terminal that will enable the port to handle two large cruise ships at a time, said port spokesman Chris Bonura.

In 2004, about 734,000 cruise passengers embarked and disembarked through the port.

"We were the fastest-growing cruise port before the storm," Bonura said. "We think we'll get back to that point."

In the meantime, the industry isn't looking forward to the first-year observance of Katrina on Aug. 29 -- and the prospect of the destruction being revisited on television.

"We've got to overcome the negative images that Hurricane Katrina put on us," Gray said. "The first anniversary is coming up, and I'm sure those images will be relived again. That's unfortunate, but it will happen."