Image: Bourbon Street
Bevil Knapp  /  EPA
Visitors to New Orleans' Bourbon Street enjoy the scenery in the French Quarter on Aug. 24. Five years after the area was virtually abandoned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, tourists are returning in increasing numbers.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/30/2010 9:41:01 AM ET 2010-08-30T13:41:01

The good times may not yet be rollin' in the Big Easy, but New Orleans appears to be heading in the right direction.

The city's vibrant tourism industry was crippled when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore with devastating force five years ago. The number of visitors to New Orleans — a city in which 35 percent of jobs were reliant on tourism before the storm — dropped dramatically in the weeks and months that followed, raising fears that the city would never fully recover.

Today, New Orleans isn't quite back to what it once was, but as the city marks the fifth anniversary of the disaster, tourism is on the rebound.

“Things are really good. It’s been our best year since Katrina,” said Ti Adelaide Martin, co-owner of Commander’s Palace, the landmark restaurant located in New Orleans’ Garden District.

The restaurant, originally opened in 1880, was closed for 13 months after the hurricane for a $6.5 million renovation to repair damage caused by Katrina. “In the days, weeks and months after Katrina, many people said ‘Let’s not rebuild,’” Martin recalled. “I hope we showed the world what we’re made of, that we have a resilience I didn’t know we had.”

These days, she said, the restaurant, and the city, are thriving.

“It’s been a strong summer. We are close to what it was before Katrina in occupancy,” said Gil Zanchi, general manager of the New Orleans Marriott, with revenue management responsibilities for about a dozen other Marriott properties in the metro area.

Five years ago he would not have predicted it, but “the signs are good” now, he said. Hotel rooms in the city were sold out for most weekends in July. In 2013, four city-wide conventions of more than 10,000 rooms each are booked.

The accolades are rolling in, too, said Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

New Orleans was recently picked as the No. 1 destination internationally for nightlife by TripAdvisor, and earlier this year, the city ranked first in growth among the top 25 U.S. destinations in hotel performance for January through May 2010, according to Smith Travel Research, Schulz said.

“Tourism is one of the success stories of post-Katrina New Orleans,” she said. “Just look at the numbers.” 

The city now boasts more than 300 new restaurants, hotels have undergone $400 million in improvements, and there are new cultural attractions such as The Audubon Insectarium and The Southern Food and Beverage Museum. And tourism jobs are up to 70,000, slightly below a pre-Katrina high of 85,000.

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The Morial Convention Center and the Louisiana Superdome — where thousands of residents were stranded without basic necessities in Katrina’s aftermath — have seen $92.7 million and $250 million in improvements, respectively, and “are better than the day they opened,” Schulz said.

In 2004, the year before Katrina, slightly more than 10 million visitors came to the city and spent close to $5 billion dollars. In 2006, the year after the hurricane, the numbers dropped to 3.7 million visitors.

Last year, despite a nationwide recession and cutbacks in corporate business travel, the number of visitors to the city edged back up to 7.5 million. These tourists, in turn, spent $4.2 billion — just below the pre-Katrina peak. Despite other setbacks, such as negative perceptions surrounding the BP oil spill, the city continues to host and book conventions, meetings, special events, festivals and high-profile sporting events, like the 2013 Super Bowl, Schulz said.

But the U.S. Travel Association said tourism could be even better. The number of visitors to New Orleans remains below the pre-Katrina peak by about 25 percent.

“What can we do as a country to prevent unnecessary damage when a disaster strikes?” said Geoff Freeman, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association. “Certainly as a country we can do better. If you keep visitors, you can prevent damage from taking place.”

The association commissioned a study, conducted by Oxford Economics, which measured potential long-term damage to the tourism industry in the Gulf Coast region as a result of the BP oil spill. The analysis, based on the examination of 25 natural and manmade disasters, including Hurricane Katrina and the found that the impact on the meetings sector in New Orleans after Katrina endures. The report estimates that 4.6 million cumulative room nights have or will be canceled, extending to 2025.

“The BP oil spill has been a challenge for us,” said Schulz. “The reality is, New Orleans is 100 miles inland. It is not on the Gulf Coast; there are no beaches.”

The biggest question has been the safety of seafood, she said, which is rigorously tested by a number of government agencies. “All the testing coming back shows that it is safe to eat. We make sure when we tell our customers it’s safe to come back, we keep our word.”

“Tourism is based on image and perception,” Schulz added. “What you can’t measure is lost opportunity.”

But negative perceptions did not keep Pierre and Jane Thibaudeau away. Despite some reservations, the couple, who live in the Canadian countryside south of Ottawa, visited New Orleans for the first time last week.

"Half of my family was sent here in the 1700s," said Mr. Thibaudeau, referring to the Great Expulsion, when thousands of French settlers in Canada were deported by the British, who were at war with France. He said his son-in-law gave him and his wife the trip as a gift to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

The first night, during a riverboat cruise, the couple listened to jazz and dined on regional specialties like catfish, roasted pork in hot marmalade sauce and bread pudding.

“It’s absolutely wonderful” Jane Thibaudeau said. She and her husband intend to spend five days in the city, enjoying walking tours, exploring the French Quarter and sampling local fare, like beignets, a doughnut-like pastry made from deep-fried dough, sprinkled with sugar.

“We’re going to wander around the streets without a worry on our minds,” said Pierre Thibaudeau. “It’s a gorgeous city.”

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Video: In New Orleans, food fuels ongoing recovery

  1. Transcript of: In New Orleans, food fuels ongoing recovery

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (New Orleans): We're back with a final note from the famous French Quarter tonight. If you've lived here, if you've just been here, then you know the place runs on food. Some liquids in moderate amounts, but food is key. And they're proud

    here to point to a big statistic: more restaurants in New Orleans today than there were before Katrina . We went out to two of them today -- a bit of research -- including the wonderfully named Parkway Bakery Tavern . Because, after all, what's a bakery without a tavern? Where they got it pretty bad during Katrina , as you can see. Today you'd never know it from the number of shoebox-size po boys they were serving to a waiting lunch crowd. Same with Mandina 's about a half mile away from there. It's been a New Orleans fixture since the 1930s . Katrina knocked them down hard, but they got back up, mostly on the raw strength of their onion rings and their fried eggplant sticks, and the sheer power of food to keep this city up and running. And as we head out for much more research in that area, a reminder. We'll be broadcasting from here in New Orleans tomorrow evening, as well. Our special Friday MAKING A DIFFERENCE segment will feature the work being done here by the actor Brad Pitt . Then tomorrow night, our documentary on MSNBC on what we saw those first awful days of the storm and the aftermath. On Sunday I'll host " Meet the Press " from New Orleans , and on Sunday night's NEWS our exclusive interview with President Obama . And we'll have much more, including all our stories from our coverage over these past five years. We have put it for you on our Web site , nightly.msnbc.com.

Photos: Big Easy returns

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  1. Katrina's mess

    A junked car lies near empty houses in the Lakeview neighborhood near the site of the levee breach on the 17th Street Canal, August 29, 2005. More than five months after caused by Hurricane Katrina made landfall, there was little progress in some areas of New Orleans. Today, tours are offered to visitors to have a better understanding of events pre and post Katrina. (David Rae Morris / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Big Easy blues

    Costumed revelers dressed as blue roof tarps pose at the annual MOMs Ball, thrown each year by the Krewe of Misfits, Orphans and Mystics in New Orleans. Many of this years Mardi Gras floats and costumes reference the blue tarps that still protect broken roofs across the city after Hurricane Katrina. (Matthew Cavanaugh / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Soul sounds

    Jen Pearl (L) and Michelle Loughnane stand under an umbrella with a reference to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, April 2006. Jazz Fest '07 will be held on April 27-29 and May 4-6. (Lee Celano / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dancing in the streets

    A member of the Young Olympia Aide and New Look Social Aid and Pleasure Club dances in a second line parade at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (Lee Celano / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Jeweled celebration

    Members of the Krewe of Thoth throw beads as they travel down St. Charles Avenue where thousands of revelers showed up to enjoy 2006 Mardi Gras festivities. Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") is the day before Ash Wednesday, and a celebration of the last the day before the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Mardi Gras 2007 will be observed on Feb. 20. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Eye candy

    Revelers ogle a woman exposing herself on Bourbon St. during Mardi Gras festivities in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Closing time

    Orleans Parish mounted Police Officers march down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter announcing the official end of Mardi Gras 2006. (Sean Gardner / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A shout for freedom

    "Big Chief" Victor Armstrong wears an elaborate Mardi Gras Indian costume. The Indian tradition of Mardi Gras pays homage to the relationship between Native Americans and escaped African slaves of the 1700s. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. USA - Hurricane Katrina - Aftermath
    David Rae Morris / Corbis
    Above: Slideshow (8) Big Easy returns
  2. Image: Parade in the Lower Ninth Ward
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (8) Gulf Coast marks fifth anniversary of Katrina

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