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Tourists trickle back into New Orleans

With the French Quarter, the city’s main tourist draw, spared from most of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath, visitors are beginning to trickle back.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jeanie Reavis has come for Mardi Gras and Jazzfest and Creole Christmas, dozens of trips to the city she loves. She will head to New Orleans again Monday, undeterred by the destruction she witnessed on her TV screen from 700 miles away. She says she has to.

“Everyone thinks I’m crazy, but everyone that knows me knew that as soon as it was open I’d be getting down there,” said the 54-year-old secretary from Loami, Ill., near Springfield. “I really need to see it.”

With the French Quarter, the city’s main tourist draw, spared from most of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath, visitors are beginning to trickle back and others are vowing to keep upcoming reservations.

Reavis will visit New Orleans with her husband, as they have more than 30 times before, though this time will be more a pilgrimage than a vacation.

“For me, New Orleans is my favorite place in the world,” Reavis said. “My only reservation is that I’m sure I’m going to cry when I see it.”

She may be surprised.

Bourbon Street is already alive with drink-guzzling, bead-tossing, music-blaring action, though much of it is generated by relief and reconstruction workers, reporters, locals and military personnel, who represent a big chunk of New Orleans’ current population.

‘Coming back to life’
“The city’s coming back to life,” said 41-year-old Treila Griffin of St. Joseph, Mo., enjoying a cigarette and a drink served in one of the city’s trademark cups shaped like a hand grenade. “They’re not going to let it take them down, that’s for sure.”

The dichotomy of the city is stark.

Revelers enjoy a weekend night at a strip club or on the balcony of a bar while other residents return to neighborhoods nearly washed away by the storm. Restaurants that are open grapple with inadequate staffing and use paper and plastic instead of china and glass, while some New Orleanians debate bulldozing their homes or whether to return at all.

“You’ve got to start rebuilding somewhere,” said Eric Bansch, a 21-year-old student from College Station, Texas, visiting New Orleans with friends. “They can still party. That’s what I like to see.”

Kim Priez, vice president of tourism for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city is officially reopening to travelers on Jan. 1, though she is frequently encountering those who can’t wait.

“It’s not going to be quite where we used to be,” Priez said. “But if they know that, then we’re welcoming them.”

Priez notes that businesses are slowly reopening, but many remain shuttered. Visitors who previously made reservations are advised to call hotels to be sure they’ve reopened. The status of landmark establishments is as varied as everything else here — revered beignet stop Cafe Du Monde is due to reopen Wednesday, but the National D-Day Museum will likely remain closed for months.

Emotional pull
Steve Litvin, a hospitality and tourism professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said he’d be surprised if New Orleans sees many visitors in the next year.

“Tourists can go wherever it is they wish, when they wish,” he said. “When a tourist picks their destination of choice, the choice will be someplace without problems. Why go somewhere that will provide anything less than a wonderful experience?”

It’s clear, though, the emotional attachment of many to this city — its architecture, its food, its music, and everything else that makes it unique — would bring them back.

Mike Zaborowski knows he may not be able to do everything he’d like when he visits Nov. 2 from Newark, Ohio, but he’s not willing to cancel a trip he’s been planning since last year.

“It’s not that I want to see the devastation,” the 51-year-old park ranger said. “I just want to enjoy the French Quarter like I did all the other years.”