IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Will tourists return to New Orleans?

Leisure travel, business conventions and major events such as Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and the Sugar Bowl are by far the dominant drivers of the New Orleans economy. But the question is, will visitors return after Hurricane Katrina?
Under the gaze of a Mardi Gras mask, a little bit of normalcy appears on the sidewalk at Patout’s Restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans.Paul Sancya / Ap File / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

On Bourbon Street, Red Cross workers are taking a break with a night out. There are firefighters, police officers, National Guard troops, construction workers and contractors of every stripe. But there aren't any tourists or conventioneers, the twin engines that make this city, home to just one Fortune 500 company, economically viable.

And many of the Hurricane Katrina rescue and relief workers are heading home. Bars and restaurants that were full a week ago are often close to empty. This is making local business owners wonder whether early stirrings of life in the French Quarter were real -- or a heartbreaking mirage.

"The first two weeks back, I was standing room only," said Brent Ardeneaux, manager of Déjà Vu Showgirls, one of several Bourbon Street strip clubs that have reopened since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. "Now we've lost a lot of the military and police. And all the conventions are canceled until at least March. That's the biggest part of my business. If we don't have conventions, that doesn't make me feel real comfortable."

Leisure travel, business conventions and major events such as Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and the Sugar Bowl are by far the dominant drivers of the New Orleans economy. They account for $5 billion to $8 billion in revenue per year, according to the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. Before the storm, tourism employed 85,000 workers in the city.

But the Convention Center, a fetid refuge from the flood, is wrecked and not expected to reopen till the end of March. The Nokia Sugar Bowl has decamped to Atlanta, at least for next year. The traditional Thanksgiving week football game between rivals Grambling State and Southern, known as the Bayou Classic, has moved to Houston this year. Halloween, typically a big draw for voodoo lovers, will be significantly scaled down. This city has already lost $3 billion worth of anticipated revenue from events canceled from Sept. 1 through March 31, according to the visitors bureau.

Jacques Chrysochoos, owner of Howl at the Moon and Hustler bars on Bourbon Street, said his clubs need about $1.5 million a month in revenue to remain profitable. That means about a million visitors a month. "We're ready. We can reopen. But who is going to come?" Chrysochoos said.

Such worries -- as well as the loss of visitors who once frequented the region's now-damaged riverboat casinos -- led Mayor C. Ray Nagin last week to suggest that gambling be allowed in large hotels in the central business district.

Marketing effort crippled
Restaurants, bars and hotels are desperate to hire workers, offering big wage increases and bonuses. But even prospective employees who want to come home -- and many do not -- have nowhere to live. Right now, hotel workers are living in hotel rooms. Strippers are sleeping on couches in clubs. But everyone knows this cannot last long.

To make matters worse, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city's crucial marketing arm, is virtually shut down. The bureau runs in part on hotel room taxes. Federal workers who have booked up many hotels for the next several months often pay no tax. There has even been talk of the city airport going broke, something that would certainly choke New Orleans to death. Business leaders say, though, that there is no way the federal government would let that happen.

Perhaps not, but the calculus for getting this city's staggered tourism economy back on its feet is daunting and riddled with Catch-22s. And time is limited. Even ardent city promoters acknowledge that New Orleans, lacking any other major industry, will fall into despair and bankruptcy unless tourists start coming back soon. If they do not, the 3,000 government layoffs recently announced by Nagin will be just the start.

"We are not a major corporate city. We don't have the big oil and gas industry anymore. We are a textural, historical and cultural economy," said J. Stephen Perry, president of the visitors bureau. "It's very, very important that tourism get back up and running and do it pretty quickly."

The case for a resurgent New Orleans tourism market goes roughly this way: For the next few months, the city limps along as hotels, bars and restaurants try to reopen and survive on business from construction workers, contractors and government employees who will undoubtedly stick around, though they probably will not run up big tabs at New Orleans flagship restaurants such as Emeril's and Commander's Palace.

After that, the city stages a scaled-down, but highly emotional, Mardi Gras early next year, touted as the 150th anniversary of the bacchanal. City business leaders describe Mardi Gras 2006 as the city's official reopening party. "I've already got commitments from several krewes to hold their Mardi Gras balls here," said Dan King, general manager of the Sheraton on Canal Street, one of the city's largest hotels. Krewes are the social clubs that sponsor floats in Mardi Gras parades.

King said that several krewes would team up on the same float next year and that the entire event would be smaller than usual. Nonetheless, he said the event's success or failure will go a long way toward deciding the city's future. "We need to have that first big event to give people the confidence that we can handle it," he said. King spends much of his time these days on the phone, imploring convention planners not to cancel events scheduled for next year but instead to give the city a chance to show it can recover.

Media images
He said his biggest problem is that convention planners are all in Washington, Chicago and other cities and get their information about New Orleans from television. The images and ideas ingrained in the planners' minds, King said, are of flooded neighborhoods, desperate poverty, tainted water and AWOL cops.

What the planners rarely see, King said, is that the city's cultural crown jewels, including the French Quarter, the Garden District and the Uptown neighborhood near Tulane University, came through Katrina mostly unscathed. King and other business leaders also note that the decimated neighborhoods, including middle-class Lakeview and the mostly poor Lower Ninth Ward, were never on the tourist map to begin with.

While that is accurate, the Ninth Ward was home to many of the musicians and service workers who make the New Orleans economy possible. Many of these people are just beginning to cobble together jobs and lives in Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas and all over the country. Why would they come back to New Orleans with little idea where they will live?

"I don't see this city bouncing back right away," said Scorelender Johnson, a 26-year-old who grew up in New Orleans and has been working security outside the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter since the storm. "Right now I want to stay and help out New Orleans any way I can," he said. But would he stick around to see what happens as the city tries to rebuild? "I don't know," he said. He might opt instead for Texas or California. "I might move to Austin or to Oakland, anywhere that has a good music scene."

Optimists about the city's future say there are possible housing solutions. The French Quarter has been largely vacant for years and has thousands of available rental units. If the hourly wages earned by service industry workers continue to rise, they may be able to afford living in these apartments. In addition, parts of the West Bank area, across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, came through Katrina comparatively unharmed.

‘On the city right now’
King, of the Sheraton, said his staff has been scouting out areas, such as Algiers, a neighborhood on the West Bank, and found scores of affordable rental units in good condition. "That area is going to become much more prominent," King said. Perry, president of the visitors bureau, said big-business owners have talked about setting up a regional bus system to transport workers from the West Bank and other areas to jobs in tourist neighborhoods.

Others involved in the tourism industry say it will be largely up to city government to prove it can consistently provide services such as clean water, garbage hauling and police protection to keep business running and tourists safe. "It's on the city right now, not on us," said Burt Benrud, vice president of Café Du Monde, the venerable 24-hour French Quarter purveyor of cafe au lait and beignets. "Without the basics, we just can't operate."

The answer to whether the city can generate enough tax revenue to provide those services lies in the hands of convention planners and leisure travelers. Some of the workers who came to New Orleans for the first time after Katrina promised to come back. "The spirit of Bourbon Street will never die," said 25-year-old Red Cross worker Ali Hochreiter as she prepared to leave town.