Will Bourbon Street Bring the Tourists Back to New Orleans?

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Dusk falls over Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, almost one year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. The city is struggling to make ends meet while its tourism industry remains crippled.

On the surface, which is the only part of most major cities that tourists visit, New Orleans seems to have cleaned itself up quite nicely in the year since Katrina. French Quarter businesses have swept their stoops and hung banners, and bawdy Bourbon Street is awash in neon; Creole stalwarts like Galatoire's and Arnaud's are once again dishing up gumbo and crawfish etouffe, and live music spills nightly from funky clubs Uptown and on Frenchmen Street, an entertainment strip adjacent to the French Quarter; even the mammoth Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which became a symbol of human suffering to millions of television viewers in the storm's aftermath, is wrapping up a $60 million renovation

There's only one thing missing, and that unfortunately, is the hordes of tourists.

Though the areas of most interest to visitors got through Katrina pretty much intact, the haunting images (including tourists trapped in hotels) and constant media attention left over from Katrina has kept the bulk of sightseers from returning. "It's been slow. Seems like everybody's doing about 30 percent of the business they were doing pre-Katrina," says Tom Mullen, whose grandmother founded the French Quarter psychic reading shop Bottom of the Cup Tea Room back in 1929. On a display shelf in the shop, next to the crystal balls and good-fortune candles, are packets of incense that promise to "Cleanse Negativity" and restore "Peace and Balance."

In the sweltering summer of 2006, New Orleans' anxious tourism industry could use a truckload of the stuff. Hurricane Katrina brought the city's multi-billion convention and tourism industry to a dead halt. Meetings and conventions that had been scheduled years ahead of time cancelled, along with the hundreds of thousands of attendees that would have filled hotel rooms and restaurants. For months, the few casual tourists who showed up were almost exclusively families of FEMA contractors and construction workers. (Paradoxically, two of those neighborhoods that were hardest hit, and where few tourists ventured before the storm — the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview — have become popular destinations for out-of-town visitors.)

A lot is riding on the city's ability to lure visitors back. For better or worse, New Orleans has long staked a disproportionate share of its economic health on the tourism and convention business. Before Katrina, tourist spending pumped up to $6 billion into the local economy, employed 80,000 and fueled more than one-third of the city's operating budget. Getting those visitors back is key to the city's recovery, and to its long-term viability — perhaps even more so in a smaller, post-Katrina economy, when luring new business and industry will likely be an even greater challenge than it was before the storm.

Tourism officials have rolled out a new advertising campaign, featuring a new slogan ("COME FALL IN LOVE WITH NEW ORLEANS ALL OVER AGAIN") and homegrown celebrities such as Emeril Lagasse, Wynton Marsalis and actress Patricia Clarkson. But prospective tourists could be forgiven if they're still confused. Almost since the slow recovery began, New Orleans has been sending mixed messages, begging the federal government for more financial help and asking the state to send in the National Guard to help battle a violent crime wave, while assuring skittish tourists and convention planners that the city's historic attractions are intact, the hospitality infrastructure is up and running and public safety in tourist zones remains nothing to worry about.

Just because they are mixed, however, doesn't mean that the messages aren't all valid — and therein lies the marketing problem. "Our residential areas have been severely devastated," says Angele Davis, Louisiana's secretary of culture, recreation and tourism. "We're rebuilding those residential areas. But right now our tourism infrastructure is intact, and that's the message we have to get out there. If we don't, we will lose the small cultural venues and businesses, the music clubs and galleries and antique shops that make up the fabric of New Orleans. They're holding on. They're waiting for the visitors to come back. But it's been a tough summer so far."

City officials do have some real successes to point to: Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and a series of smaller festivals went on as planned. Meanwhile, the city's major museums have reopened, and its big-name restaurants have either reopened or announced plans to do so this fall. Popular tourist attractions like the Aquarium of the Americas and Audubon Zoo are up and running, and the cruise ships that use New Orleans as a home port — and carry more than 700,000 passengers a year — will be back in service by the end of 2006. "We're back in business," says Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "A lot of people out there are thinking that New Orleans is not ready for visitors, which is not the case at all."

Most importantly, perhaps, the city held its first large convention, a meeting of the American Library Association that drew 17,000 delegates, in June. Meeting and convention planners were watching it closely. "If Library had been a failure, it would have been a serious problem," says Deborah Sexton, president of the Professional Convention Management Association. The gathering went off without a hitch, as long as you don't make much of the fact that it coincided with the arrival of 300 National Guard troops, an event that received widespread news coverage. Many associations, at the urging of nervous board members, have opted to move their conventions elsewhere. But tourism officials have lined up some big events for the fall and spring, including a meeting of the National Association of Realtors that could draw as many as 25,000.

Still, the negative images linger, and the city is facing a difficult and protracted recovery. More than half the population is still in exile, and huge swaths of New Orleans remain largely abandoned while residents wait for rebuilding money to arrive. Citywide some 60% of local businesses have most likely not reopened, according to a survey by Louisiana State University.

Meanwhile, business owners like Mullen, of Bottom of the Cup Tea Room, are waiting for the figurative tea leaves to signal better times ahead. "People from other parts of the nation are concerned about the water, the air and the seafood, of all things," Mullen says, as a couple of middle-aged tourists negotiate a price for a double psychic reading. But he's determined to ride out the post-hurricane storm. "We're not going anywhere," he adds. "It's just gonna be a long haul." Far too long, unless more visitors themselves make the haul.