All is not well, but New Orleans keeps making progress

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The Big Easy has found recovery not so easy since Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans in August 2005. But local officials say that a resilient New Orleans is back in the tourism business despite lingering infrastructure damage and image problems.

"New Orleans the destination is in great shape and the New Orleans experience is very much alive, and in some ways even better," said Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We've proven with a number of big events and conventions that we are definitely ready, willing and able to welcome both leisure visitors and large conventions."

Gearing up to welcome visitors to Mardi Gras celebrations in February and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April, the city started the year with college football's Sugar Bowl.

"The nationally televised Sugar Bowl has shown that people are here, loving life and working hard to get our city back in order," she said.

Not all the news has been as good. New Orleans still struggles to attract visitors.

"Attracting the leisure visitor is tough because the mass media are having a field day with the city, focusing on any bad news story they can get their hands on and magnifying it out of proportion."

The CVB has just $8 million, out of a total $28.5 million awarded by federal and state officials to the Louisiana Office of Tourism, to counter bad news with positive publicity, marketing and advertising campaigns.

"That's not nearly enough, especially when our competitors are spending four times as much to promote destinations that are 100% intact," said Romig.

Still, Romig said that the CVB was planning to launch an "aggressive" new marketing initiative in January.

City tourism officials plan to ask for additional state funding to finish fixing infrastructure in the French Quarter, which Romig called "the most important jewel in our crown."

More rooms at the inns

Any visitors attracted are going to need a place to stay. Nearly 30,000 of the city's 38,000 hotel rooms are open. Harrah's New Orleans opened a 27-story hotel tower with 450 rooms in September. The Ritz-Carlton and the Chateau Sonesta reopened last month after extensive renovations. The Hotel Monaco will reopen as a Hilton during this year's Mardi Gras.

"The Ritz-Carlton is the most recent property to reopen, and it's better than ever," said Romig. "And the historic Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter went through a major renovation it had on the books to do in the long-term anyway."

The Hyatt Regency, due to reopen after a complete overhaul by early 2008, and the Fairmont, closed indefinitely, are the only two "big-ticket" hotels in New Orleans that have not reopened.

All told, 90 downtown properties were open for business as of December, according to the CVB.

And there's more good news. Except for the lakefront and the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, most of the city's major visitor attractions are open, including the Audubon Nature Institute, Cafe du Monde, Mardi Gras World, carriage rides in the French Quarter and riverboats Steamboat Natchez and Creole Queen.

All major museums, including the New Orleans Museum of Art, the National World War II Museum and the Lousiana Children's Museum, are open, as well.

According to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, about 700 restaurants are open in all of Orleans Parish, which includes the French Quarter, downtown, uptown and the Warehouse Arts and Garden districts.

The city's cruise port is also busy, posting its busiest month ever in December.

"It's looking good, but we need to continue to prove to the cruise industry that we can fill ships, and that's all tied in with attracting that leisure traveler back to the city," said Romig.

The CVB anticipated that Majestic America Line would soon announce the return of its American Queen and Delta Queen vessels to New Orleans.

"They are for a more of a mature or senior citizen passenger who wants a riverboat experience on a theme-type trip, and they come to New Orleans for that from far and wide," said Romig.

Laissez les bons temps rouler

One thing that's certain is that Mardi Gras is back in business. While some questioned the city's decision to host the traditional parades and accompanying festivities last winter in the wake of Katrina, this year there are no such qualms.

"Mardi Gras is not just about a party, it's about business," said Romig. "It was a good business decision to have it last year and to highlight all it means to New Orleans' traditions. The question this year is whether to make all the parades march on what's called the 'uptown route', " said Romig.

The mayor and the city's police department, smaller in these post-Katrina days, are both strongly against letting parades "roll" in outlying neighborhoods that are still recovering from Katrina.

Planners have added another day to the parade schedule, making for eight days of parades altogether. Although the season officially began Jan. 6, on the holiday known as Epiphany, or Kings Day, most parades are held over the eight days prior to Mardi Gras, which falls on Feb. 20.

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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