In our Page 1 story last week about some of the challenges facing Mardi Gras organizers [Lawsuit threatens to rain on Mardi Gras parade, Jan. 3, 2006], Kim Priez, vice president of tourism for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB), lamented the fact that travel agents (among others) are still seeing rebroadcasts of post-hurricane footage showing water in the streets of her city.

There are not enough marketing dollars in the world to counter those kinds of lingering images, she said.

But its not just the reruns of post-Katrina imagery on news programs that the public is seeing. Comedy Central, arguably the least sober media outlet on the planet, continues to run public service announcements reminding viewers that the crisis spawned by Katrina is not over yet and urging viewers go to to its Web site and donate.

If Comedy Central -- which conceivably could show the PSA between promos for Girls Gone Wild videos and ads for hangover cures -- is sending a message this somber about New Orleans, the NOCVB is right to worry about whether Mardi Gras can be marketed effectively.

I accept the NOCVBs assertion that the city has enough hotel rooms and security to hold a successful, if scaled-down, Mardi Gras. On the surface, the bureau, confident of its ability to deliver a positive tourism experience, appears to be in a battle against an ethereal enemy: perception.

But there is another dimension to the bureaus problems that is more delicate to explore. Following the hurricane, a spotlight of global intensity was focused on New Orleans racial and economic divisions.

Generally speaking, these divisions are among the topics that Americans know exist, but which, as a rule, they prefer not to dwell upon.

Indeed, the national consciousness may well have moved on to another topic except that some New Orleans residents are reluctant to let this particular spotlight turn away. They are complaining -- loudly -- that its disrespectful to victims of Katrina, and insensitive to those living in poverty in New Orleans, to hold a party like Mardi Gras this year. (A lawsuit was filed by a member of one of the best-known krewes to prevent his group from marching in the parade.)

Economic and racial divisions in New Orleans have existed -- coexisted, actually -- side by side with a thriving tourism industry for as long as there has been a tourism industry in that city.

And New Orleans is hardly unique in its juxtaposition of tourist attractions and poverty.  Look at Acapulco. Rio. Nairobi.

As an industry, tourism establishes itself wherever there is beauty, culture or unique experiences. New Orleans offers all three. Tourism has never limited itself to areas free from political and economic problems. To the contrary, it has made arguments that travel broadens exposure to controversial issues and can help bring about resolutions.

I dont blame those who seek to use Mardi Gras as a platform to call attention to their needs. But if they were to actually succeed in stopping or diminishing Mardi Gras, it would be the most hollow sort of victory. Mardi Gras in 2006 has the potential to boost the citys economy and morale and could be a symbolic turning point for a city beset by setbacks.

Holding Mardi Gras this year is no more a sign of disrespect to those who have suffered in Katrinas wake or who live in poverty than playing jazz in a funeral procession is a sign of disrespect to the dead or the mourning.

If pre-Katrina New Orleans taught the world anything, it is that its possible to celebrate in the face of adversity. And that, sometimes, its necessary.


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