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New Orleans urges tourists to return

Three months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans rolled out the welcome mat, telling Americans Tuesday, if you want to help rebuild, come have a good time. But as NBC's Martin Savidge reports, many residents say the focus on tourism is short-sighted when so many New Orleanians are struggling.

Three months after the storm, New Orleans rolled out the welcome mat Tuesday, telling Americans, if you want to help rebuild, come have a good time.

“Visit New Orleans,” urged J. Stephen Perry with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Come enjoy those things that you've grown up all your life enjoying, and by simply doing that it'll be the most patriotic act that you'll engage in in the next year.”

The invitation coincides with a visit by the nation's biggest tourism group, the American Society of Travel Agents.

Encouraging visitors to party on Bourbon Street when most residents are still just trying to salvage what they can on their own street may sound odd, but officials say New Orleans’ future depends on it.

Before Katrina, tourism was the city's No. 1 industry, drawing more than 10 million visitors in 2004, generating $5.5 billion and supporting 75,000 jobs. After Katrina, tourist destinations like the French Quarter and Garden District were spared the flooding. As a result, backers say tourism is an economic engine that's ready to run. But that engine still has some potential misfires, such as:

  • Where will tourists stay? The city has only a third of the hotel rooms it once had.
  • Where will they eat? Only 26 percent of the restaurants in the greater New Orleans area are open.

Sitting in the ruins of her East New Orleans home, Tina Pieklo thinks too much has already been focused on the French Quarter.

“What about the people that live here and that have been here forever?” Pieklo asks. “Don't worry about the people. Let’s just worry about the tourists coming in.”

The same feelings were heard at Tuesday afternoon’s town hall meeting.

“How can we celebrate Mardi Gras,” asked one man, “when most folks can't even come home?”

For residents still struggling to just live here, New Orleans is anything but a good time.