By Travel columnist

Well, 2005 was certainly a challenging year for the travel industry — including travel agents like me. We dealt with bankruptcies, labor strikes, a horrible exchange rate, missing passengers on a cruise ship, a missing girl in Aruba, and four wenches named Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

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Already, 2006 is off to a tumultuous start with the demise of Independence Air in the first week of the new year and the prediction from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration that we will have another “active” hurricane season later this year. It makes one wonder what lies ahead for the destinations that we have all come to know and love.

Imagine a world without a London, Paris, New York, Cancun or New Orleans. Unthinkable! Impensable! (Or, as a Cajun from New Orleans might say, “Go to bed!”) Well folks, I am afraid it is true. While we are not in any imminent danger of losing Paris or New York, it is quite possible that New Orleans could become a lost city like Herakleion, the ancient Egyptian port that fell into the sea in 103 A.D. Fortunately for New Orleans, we are better able to put up a good fight to save this rich cultural city, one of the true gems of the United States.

But what New Orleans really needs right now is a shot in the tourism arm. While it is likely that Katrina has forever changed the face of this city, the infrastructure will be rebuilt. The federal government has committed over $200 billion to the rebuilding, the insurance money is beginning to roll in for those who had insurance, it is a start! But, to rebuild the tourism infrastructure, we need to start with one guest at a time. As anyone who has visited the Crescent City for Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, French Quarter Fest, or any number of conventions will attest — tourism is a staple of the economy. The ports will always be busy, but the tens of thousands of people who depend on tourism cannot depend on longshoremen to keep them employed. New Orleans offers something for everyone and we need to do what we can to bring her back!

Have you ever been to this amazing city? Maybe for a convention? Mardi Gras? Have you ever heard jazz at Preservation Hall? Snug Harbor? Tipitina’s? Have you collected beads on Bourbon Street - or tossed them? Have you lingered over crab bisque at Tujague’s?

Without a doubt, the Crescent City is my favorite domestic destination. Many people ask me why, and the only thing I can come up with is that New Orleans has soul. I have no idea how to define soul, but I know it when I see it, and New Orleans definitely has it. Many cities have character — Annapolis has character — but New Orleans has soul.

Many recent columns and articles have posed the headline question: “New Orleans: Can It Be Saved?” This is all wrong. Transpose two small words and change the punctuation and you have the real story: “New Orleans: It Can Be Saved!”

Wanna know how?

Go! Get off your couch and call your travel agent (or surf the Web). Book a trip to New Orleans — or anywhere on the Gulf Coast. Spend some money, drink a Hurricane (pardon the pun and irony), take in some jazz, and give this city what it needs. Be a part of rebuilding our heritage and our history. Fly, drive, sail, take a train, hitchhike or hang glide — just get yourself to the Big Easy and spread some money around. It will be the best charitable donation you’ve ever made and the most fun, guaranteed.

On New Year’s Eve, Mayor Ray Nagin showcased the city’s resiliency with its New Year’s celebration. The mayor made the same appeal that I do: The city needs tourism; come give us a hand. As they say in New Orleans, Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!). I say: Let them roll, and let them roll hard!

Personally, I will be there the weekend of February 17. I’ve already purchased my tickets. I’ll be there with a bunch of friends and believe me, we will be doing our part to help. That is the week before Mardi Gras. There will be parades and Krewes to be seen, and the celebration will be in high gear.

Unfortunately, my favorite hotel, The Maison Dupuy, won’t reopen until April 1. But I spoke with Ana Karavagelis, sales manager of the hotel, and she echoed the mayor’s comments: Come on down and have a good time. She did caution that many establishments are still closed or are offering limited services. “But a fun time is not in short supply,” she said. “All of the annual festivals will continue — Mardi Gras, French Quarter Festival, Jazz Fest — they are all happening.”

Me, I’ll be staying at the Holiday Inn French Quarter. But if you need a list of hotels, restaurants and attractions that are open, please feel free to download the list on our forums.

While I love the “off-the-beaten-path” side of New Orleans, this time I am headed back as a tourist with a vengeance — and a pocketful of money. I’m going to say hello to Harry Anderson and his wife Elizabeth, who own Sideshow, one of America’s great curiosity shops. I am going to stumble down Bourbon Street with a Hurricane go-cup purchased from Pat O’Brien’s and a bunch of beads purchased from the local shop. I’ll toss a few bucks into the sax case of that fabulous “cat” who plays near Pirates Alley. You may find me on the balcony of the Cats Meow or another bar, or listening to the piano at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. If I am particularly brave, I might tackle the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone (it makes me dizzy and sick under the best of circumstances), or even volunteer to be picked on at Howl at the Moon!

Why not come down and join me? I might even buy you a drink. If you can make it, please e-mail me. Together we can do a small part to rebuild this fantastic city on the Mississippi!

I will be reporting on this visit on our Tripso Forums (spelling will not count), and you can count on another column with the real scoop when I return!

Meanwhile, get packing.

John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With nearly ten years as a senior executive in the retail travel industry and a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail himor visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Frenaye's forum.

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