'Rebirth Louisiana' gets thumbs up from travel industry

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Louisiana officials unveiled a preliminary plan last week to help rebuild the states devastated travel industry and return more than 120,000 tourism workers to their jobs. The plan would marshal support from government sources, industry groups and companies to help funds the effort.

Titled Rebirth Louisiana, the plan remains sketchy in its detail. Nevertheless it was quickly endorsed by Travel Industry Association President Roger Dow and other leaders of national tourism organizations.

State officials said the plan not only lays a foundation for restoring the tourist areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but also anticipates improvements in the tourism industry in New Orleans to make the area the pre-eminent destination in the region for national and international tourism.

We have begun the monumental task of rebuilding New Orleans and the surrounding parishes in southeast Louisiana, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu told reporters at a gathering of state officials and industry leaders in Baton Rouge last week. As each day brings new progress, we have been working to marshal every resource to help the vital tourism industry, second-largest in our state, rebound.

Calling the New Orleans cultural tourism areas the soul of America, Landrieu said the state would seek federal funds as well as contributions from the travel and tourism industry. He said the state would request lobbying help from Washington-based travel and tourism associations and the Louisiana Congressional delegation to secure resources to help rebuild.

Landrieus office, which oversees cultural, recreation and tourism efforts in the state, said it will coordinate a massive public relations campaign, small business loans to affected areas and other recovery efforts.

Historical areas fared well

Angele Davis, director of Louisianas Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, told Travel Weekly there has been significant good news as assessments of the damage in cultural and historical efforts are completed.

Our most important cultural assets, including the French Quarter, received minimal damage, she said.

Davis said she toured areas of the historic districts in the region and was relieved to find many of the irreplaceable artifacts -- Louis Armstrongs trumpet, Audubon bird paintings, city documents from 1769 onward, Napoleons death mask, and similar draws for tourists -- unharmed.

A small portion of the citys historical jazz collection, housed in the U.S. Mint, did suffer minor damage from rain when part of the roof was lost, she said, but she has been assured those materials can be restored.

Even as Hurricane Rita bore down on the Texas Gulf Coast late last week, bringing concerns that it could bring more flooding to New Orleans, state officials said they remain optimistic about the states ability to better protect the city, essential for restoring confidence by the capital markets to invest in redeveloping the tourism economy.

That industry attracted some $9.9 billion in spending by visitors to Louisiana last year, officials noted.

We are very optimistic, Davis said. We are focused not just on rebuilding to rebuild but to recapture the soul of America, and restore what is important to our culture, whether it is our musical history, our literary artists, our culinary culture or whatever it might be.

The plan Landrieu unveiled last week centers on four main points:

  • Emphasis on the states tourism attractions which remain open.
  • Making Louisiana tourism the economic engine that drives rebuilding efforts.
  • Focus on building better livelihoods for workers within Louisianas tourism industry and for those who support it.
  • Set a high standard within the recovery for performance, accountability and ethics.
  • The plan anticipates using funds raised privately to help provide loans to small businesses and recovery organizations to help finance the effort.

    The lieutenant governors office will facilitate that process through a nonprofit group, the Cultural Economy Foundation, which has been created specifically to receive and distribute funds, officials said.

    TIA will do its part

    The TIAs Dow, who was in Baton Rouge last week to join industry officials backing the state tourism recovery effort, said the association will join the state and the region in lobbying Congress for financial support in the reconstruction efforts and in coordinating industry support for that effort.

    Loews Hotels CEO Jonathan Tisch was among those who threw support behind the states tourism rebuilding plan, speaking at the press conference last week as chairman of the Travel Business Roundtable (TBR).

    Tisch, whose companys hotel in New Orleans was damaged, told reporters he believed that companies would set aside competitive issues to help rebuild the area.

    The TIA and the TBR put some actions behind their words by sending a proposed legislative relief package to the Bush administration and Congressional leaders, asking for emergency tax relief for travel and tourism industry employees and owners in the three states hit hardest by the hurricane. The package would include federal tax deductions and credits.

    We are seeking only emergency tax relief for the affected region that would be both time-limited and targeted in focus, Dow emphasized in testimony Sept. 22 to the Energy and Commerce Committees subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection.

    Dow said he considers the first step in the process to be job recovery, including finding interim work for tourism industry employees while rebuilding is going on.

    He pledged that the TIA would take a leadership role in the effort.

    Some 260,000 tourism-related workers were displaced across the Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

    Outside funds are critical

    Louisiana officials noted that outside financial resources will be critical to the rebuilding effort because no tourism revenues currently exist, leaving no tax revenues to refill the coffers of Louisiana convention and tourism organizations.

    Landrieu said the cultural reputation of New Orleans and the region will be a key driver in attracting economic help from the rest of the country.

    To rebuild Louisiana better than before we must understand that Louisiana lives through the creativity and culture of its people, Landrieu said. Louisiana is set apart by its deeply rooted authentic and unique culture. We are the soul of the nation.

    While Landrieu said the state welcomes help from all directions, he made it clear that Louisianans would lead the rebuilding effort.

    Louisiana officials said they will create housing for those working in the tourism reconstruction effort in state parks, using both temporary buildings, mobile homes and existing cabins to provide living quarters.

    That will help free up hotel rooms for tourists, the officials said.

    To contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].

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    For more details on this article, see New Orleans hotels open up to relief workers.

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