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Tourism showing signs of life in the Big Easy

The Big Easy isn’t quite back to what it was before Hurricane Katrina, but as the city marks the fifth anniversary of the disaster, tourism is on the rebound.
Image: Fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans
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.Bevil Knapp / EPA
/ Source: contributor

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.

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.”