Hotels Five years after Katrina, reasons to rejoice in New Orleans By Gay Nagle Myers / September 09, 2010 Share 1 -- Music and musicians were everywhere in New Orleans last month, as the city marked the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest and one of the deadliest storms ever to strike the U.S.Everywhere, there was music in the air, from a lone clarinetist outside the French Quarter’s Cafe du Monde to an impromptu street-corner scratch band just off Canal, from saxophonist Branford Marsalis leading an exuberant volunteer group at a Habitat for Humanity construction site on Frenchman Street in the Seventh Ward to Harry Connick Jr. pounding the keyboard at the topping-off ceremony for the Musicians Village in the upper Ninth Ward. From St. Louis Cathedral overlooking Jackson Square, bells tolled in memory of those who had died. Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, leaving more than 1,400 dead and displacing nearly 300,000 people after levees failed, flooding more than 80% of the city. Five years later, the Crescent City has moved from ruin to renaissance. Research, surveys and visitor numbers suggest good times are rolling once again in the Big Easy. Tourism is certainly on the rebound. In 2004, the year before Katrina, New Orleans had a record-breaking year, welcoming more than 10 million visitors, who spent close to $5 billion. In 2006, the year after Katrina, visitors dropped to 3.7 million, while spending dwindled to $2.8 billion. But by 2009, despite a nationwide recession and severe cutbacks in corporate travel, 7.5 million visitors spent $4.2 billion, according to the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau.Visitor numbers are climbing again this year, helped in part by an array of events such as the French Quarter Festival, followed by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Together the two events drew more than 1 million visitors over a two-week period in July. "Attendance at those festivals set a record," said Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the Convention & Visitors Bureau.Hotels on most weekends this summer were at 90% occupancy, Perry said.He described this year’s Seafood Festival, set for Sept. 10 to 12, as "a perfect event to celebrate our restaurants and our seafood, especially given the concerns surrounding the safety of our seafood industry in light of the [BP Deepwater Horizon] oil spill."Meetings, too, have returned to New Orleans, driven by $92.7 million in improvements at the Morial Convention Center. A Lutheran Church youth gathering drew 23,000 visitors this summer followed by the Delta Sigma Theta’s 50th national convention, with more than 15,000 attendees, and the arrival en masse of music lovers for the Satchmo Summer Fest in early August. The CVB reported 666 meetings on its books for 2010, drawing close to 830,000 attendees. That compares with 360 meetings in 2006, with half the attendees.Even more telling, Perry said, "There’s not a hotel room to be had in the city" for the Sept. 9 season opener for the New Orleans Saints, the reigning Super Bowl champions, in the Superdome, which was given a $250 million redo."People are aware that the city looks better and feels better," Perry said. "We’ve seen that there is a pent-up demand for New Orleans, driven by the upsurge in the leisure travel market. Visitors know they are welcome."New Orleans’ restaurants now total 1,105, a 27% jump over pre-Katrina levels, and 210 hotels offer 35,000 rooms, close to the pre-Katrina count of 37,000 rooms. The Hyatt Regency, heavily damaged in Katrina, was the last of the great New Orleans hotels to open post-Katrina, following a $275 million investment. It is part of a larger plan to revitalize lodging facilities downtown. A 1,200-room Hyatt will open late next year adjacent to the Superdome.Airlift still has a ways to go. New Orleans now has 120 daily flights from 35 cities, down from the 162 daily flights from 42 cities pre-Katrina.The tourism industry accounts for 70,000 jobs and is the largest employer in the city. Pre-Katrina, that number was 85,000."We’ve learned that no one is immune to disaster," said Joe Blanchek, general manager of the New Orleans Marriott at the Convention Center. "New Orleans and Louisiana have had their share of disaster and heartache, but from that we are paving the way for reform. We are a strong, resilient people."Resilience was a word that popped up everywhere on the anniversary weekend, even over brunch at Brennan’s on Royal Street, a New Orleans culinary phenomenon that opened in 1946. Waiters, many of whom have served diners there for more than 40 years, brought specialties like gumbo, turtle soup, fried oysters, eggs Benedict and beignets, ending with a dramatic, flaming presentation of bananas Foster.The room was packed at 9:30 a.m. "This is not unusual," said Bonnie Warren, who has handled Brennan’s marketing and public relations for years. "We serve three meals a day every day but Christmas, and we’re famous for our three-hour breakfast."Brennan’s, which seats 550 patrons on the upstairs patio and on the main floor overlooking a courtyard with magnolia trees and a marble fountain, was closed for 10 months after Katrina. "Like everyone and everyplace else in New Orleans, the storm was a life-altering, end-of-the-world experience," Warren said. Brennan’s reopening in June 2006 kickstarted the French Quarter revival. Although the Quarter did not have the extensive damage that the rest of the city suffered, workers in that district lost homes and family and did not reappear for months. Nor did the tourists."New Orleans is doing well now," Warren said. "I see improvements all around me. New Orleans is a wonderful place to live. It has such soul, so much music, so many places for good food at reasonable prices, so many festivals, so much free street entertainment and so many places to put on your dancing shoes and rejoice."This report appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of Travel Weekly.