Archive for Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Big Easy wants its tourists back

August 29, 2006


— Friday night in the French Quarter, and the place was kind of hopping.

Crowds flowed along Bourbon Street, but not shoulder-to-shoulder. Many of the bars and restaurants were open, just with lots of empty seats and no long lines. The scene was recognizable as the home of laissez les bons temps rouler.

Just less so.

"This is like a Wednesday before Katrina," said Tammy Hoffmann, a bartender at Fritzel's European Jazz Pub, as she surveyed the scene outside.

In the year since 80 percent of this fabled city was underwater, tourists have returned to New Orleans. Just not enough of them.

Typical tourist hot spots such as the French Quarter, Garden District and downtown area were spared the worst damage by Hurricane Katrina. Many of the city's famed restaurants have reopened. But the tourism industry has struggled to regain its pre-Katrina form, when the city was on track to pull in more than 10 million visitors annually.

Conventions, a huge source of business, have slowed to a trickle. Flights into Louis Armstrong airport are off about a third. There are 25 percent fewer hotel rooms in the metropolitan area now, but occupancy rates remain higher than years past.

"Now the bad days are really bad. And the good days are not as good as they used to be," said Megan Houlihan, a clerk at Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street, where handmade voodoo dolls start at $19.95.

Vicki Brock, supervisor of the state tourism office in the French Quarter, said visitors may be staying away because of misconceptions about the city's current state.

In the French Quarter, it can be hard to tell a hurricane struck, except for the Katrina T-shirts for sale, such as the one reading, "I stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and all I got was this T-shirt, a new Cadillac and a plasma TV."

The Garden District's grandiose homes are mostly in good condition, although the famed St. Charles Avenue streetcar is sidetracked until sometime next year. Downtown has largely returned to normal.

"But somebody asked me yesterday, 'Where are the wet areas?"' Brock recalled with a shake of her head. "Come on. Give me a break! They still think we're underwater."

Some tourists inquire about seeing the devastated areas, although most do shyly, offering explanations such as, "We don't want to gawk, we just want to see what it is all about," said Brock. She happily draws them a map.

And tour companies have managed to offset a drop in their traditional business with hurricane-related tours.


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