Amid misperceptions about New Orleans 27 months after Hurricane Katrina, the cold hard fact of a crime wave is creating headaches for tourism officials.
Just over half of respondents to a University of New Orleans poll released Monday rated the city a 1, 2 or 3 in crime on a scale of 10, with 1 being "the worst city in the U.S." The poll of 775 people was taken Nov. 29-Dec. 4 and gauged the impressions of Americans outside Louisiana. Its margin of error was plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
So far this year, New Orleans had had at least 200 murders, nearly 40 more than all of 2006.
And in an alarming note for tourism, roughly one-third of respondents to the UNO poll said they were "extremely unlikely" to visit the city for "business or pleasure" over the next two years.
"We can't dismiss it and say it's not true. We know New Orleans has a crime problem," Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Monday. "All we can say is, statistics continue to point to the fact that much of the crime is taking place in historically crime-ridden parts of the city.
"That doesn't make it any less difficult or challenging for us," she added. "It's a fact of life."
Violent crime was a concern years before Katrina struck in August 2005. But so were the levees, health care and the decay of neighborhoods, said Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University. Cowen tells what he calls the "balanced" story of New Orleans to news organizations, investor groups and others around the country, partly through his association with a post-storm group of civic and business leaders known as the Fleur de Lis Ambassadors.
Katrina forced the city to deal with those problems, he said. City leaders have repeatedly said curbing violence is key to the city's recovery, and Mayor Ray Nagin has deemed public safety his top priority.
"They're complex issues, and we're working on them," Cowen said. "I think once people hear that, they walk away with a totally different view."
It's getting people to hear and pass on the message that challenges tourism and business leaders.
The UNO poll found that one-third of respondents believed the French Quarter was among areas hardest hit by Katrina. In fact, the area emerged virtually unscathed. And 26.5 percent of respondents also wrongly believed parts of the city remained under water.
The French Quarter and other downtown attractions are better destinations than before the storm, thanks to an effort to keep streets clean, said Mark Wilson, president of the French Quarter Business Association.
After Katrina, the nation was hit with waves of news out of New Orleans. Tourism leaders responded with a marketing campaign to counter bad press. "I think a certain amount of time has to go by so that New Orleans isn't at the top of everybody's mind as a negative," Wilson said. "More needs to be done, but I don't know how much more we can afford to do, other than go door-to-door."
Tourism leaders have hosted visits for national tour operators and advertised. An estimated 6 million people are expected to visit by the time the year ends. That would be up from 3.8 million in 2006 but far short of the roughly 10 million who visited in 2004, a record year.
The next few weeks will thrust New Orleans into the national tourism spotlight with a series of college bowl games. Following closely will be Mardi Gras and then the National Basketball Association All-Star game.