November 29, 2005

New Orleans says it’s tuning up for tourists

By Janet Guttsman

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - New Orleans, battered by a
hurricane and then swamped by floods, is getting ready for the
return of visitors, senior city officials said on Tuesday.

Speaking three months to the day after Hurricane Katrina
devastated much of the city and sent its population fleeing to
new homes around America, the officials said tourists should
reassess their doomsday notions of New Orleans, a city of
almost half a million people before the storm.

"We are here to let the rest of the world know that so much
of the New Orleans that visitors know and love is still here
and intact," Sandy Shillstone, head of the New Orleans Tourism
Marketing Corporation, said at the opening of a media center
that will promote the city.

"The French Quarter, the Garden District, Uptown -- all of
the places that our visitors loved -- are still here," she told
WWL radio. "The shops are spicing up, the musicians are tuning
up and we are just waiting for the visitors to come back."

Tourism was the biggest money-earner in New Orleans before
the August 29 hurricane, employing 75,000 people in a sector
that included top-notch restaurants, world-class hotels and
attractions like Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas.

A major draw for the city is Mardi Gras, the traditional
two-week pre-Lenten carnival in February that features parades
and partying. Next year's celebration is set to be slightly
shorter than in previous years, but it remains unclear how
glitzy and how crowded it will be.

The city, founded by the French in 1718 and acquired by the
United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, had 38,000
hotel rooms and hosted some of the biggest conventions in

But residents fled with the storm, there was damage to
hotels and to the cavernous convention center, which boasts an
area equivalent to 53 football fields, and restaurants are
reopening only slowly, both because they cannot find workers
and due to the absence of big-spending conventioneers.

Many housing districts were devastated by the floods and
much of the city is still without gas or electricity. Some
mid-range restaurants serve food on plastic foam plates because
they can't find staff to wash the dishes.

But tourist facilities are nevertheless opening up again,
especially in the French Quarter, sited on the crescent bend of
the Mississippi River and featuring quaint buildings with
filigree-lined balconies and legions of restaurants and bars.

"It may not be totally back to what it was pre-Katrina, but
every day we make progress," said Mayor Ray Nagin. "I'm looking
forward to getting back to normal, seeing more New Orleaneans
in New Orleans and more importantly more tourists coming in
here so we can hire back some of our city workers."

Shillstone said New Orleans expected to have 20,000 to
26,000 hotel rooms open by next year, many of them remodeled
and modernized after the storm.

"The rest of the country right now thinks that New Orleans
is sitting under water, and we are trying to handle those
misconceptions," she said.

"It may seem a bit insensitive that we are promoting
tourism and going out there and having fun, but what this is
really about is bringing back the economic base of this city."