Stephen Perry, New Orleans CVB By Gay Nagle Myers / September 06, 2010 Share 1 -- On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast on the Mississippi-Louisiana state line as a Category 4 storm, packing 140 mph winds. In New Orleans, levees were breached, flooding 80% of the city, displacing more than 300,000 people and claiming more than 1,400 lives. Hard on its heels came Hurricane Rita, less than four weeks later; an economic recession in 2008-2009 whose effects are still being felt; and then this summer's Gulf oil spill. Senior editor Gay Nagle Myers spoke with Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, about the Big Easy's recovery, rebirth and rebound. Q: Where were you as New Orleans was ordered to evacuate in the face of Katrina's arrival? A: I was here with my team at the CVB making preparations for the disaster when the mandatory evacuation orders were issued. I started driving, knowing that I had to get to a place that had working computers and the Internet. I returned two days later, set up shop in temporary quarters and began the process of assessment, rescue and recovery. Q: Five years after Katrina, what is the state of New Orleans' tourism industry? A: Never better. In fact, the CVB rarely issues Katrina-related messages anymore. The city looks better than it has in 30 years. Our tourism numbers have rebounded, and the statistics and surveys prove it. Smith Travel Research released its year-to-date figures that showed New Orleans is the second-fastest-growing tourist market in the U.S. after New York. We're having our best year since Katrina. Q: What's the secret to New Orleans' tourism success and rankings? A: The resilience and spirit of New Orleanians have been tried and proven time and time again. The atmosphere and vibe that have always been a part of the city's culture and history are alive and well. At the CVB we've added new festivals, sporting events, attractions and more reasons for leisure travelers and meetings planners to visit and revisit New Orleans. In the wake of Katrina, more than 300 new restaurants have opened up; more than $400 million in improvements, renovations and upgrades have put a new polish on our city; our visitor numbers are climbing year by year; and the reopening of the Hyatt Regency in the fall of 2011, after a $250 million redo, will be the capstone to our lodging rebirth. Q: What's the role of travel agents in the city's revival? A: Critical. They provide a valuable service, and we could not do without them. We have 35,000 hotel rooms in New Orleans, and our recent research shows that [agents] are responsible for booking between 800,000 and 900,000 room nights this year. Q: What issues remain unresolved for the city and the region? A: Tourism is one of the success stories of post-Katrina New Orleans, but there is still work to be done in this city, homes to be rebuilt, neighborhoods to be rejuvenated, structural repairs to be made and jobs to be filled. The city is on track with new medical centers, better schools and more opportunities to make a living. Crime does not impact visitors to the French Quarter or meetings attendees at the Convention Center, but it is something we must correct in sections of the inner city. Q: How did the BP oil spill impact New Orleans? A: It had very little impact on our visitor numbers this summer. To be on the safe side, we put marketing money from BP into our visitor campaigns, and it worked.