Tourism officials in New Orleans, while toning down expectations for this year's Mardi Gras, predict a continued rebound for the resilient Big Easy despite lingering post-Hurricane Katrina image problems.
The city's annual Carnival celebrations ran much earlier than usual this year -- beginning Jan. 25 and culminating on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, Feb. 5 -- due to an early Easter. This year, Fat Tuesday also happened to be "Super Tuesday," with many states holding presidential primaries. In addition, Feb. 3 was Super Bowl Sunday, the day the National Football League title game will be played.
"The mystery of Mardi Gras this year is that it's so early, which doesn't happen very often," said Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We think New Orleans won't get the national media attention we usually do because of all those competing events taking place.
"It's a weird twist of fate, and many experts are predicting a slightly slower Mardi Gras due to the timing," she said, adding that this year's event would probably fall short of the estimated 800,000 revelers who attended in 2007. "Still, it's an interesting and exciting time in New Orleans."
In Mardi Gras news, the "Super Krewe" of Endymion's parade returned to its route in Mid-City. Endymion, with more than 2,200 members, is one of three largest krewes, or parade groups, in Mardi Gras.
"Another thing added as of last year is more daylong festivals in conjunction with parades," said Romig. This year saw a Family Gras in neighboring Metairie in Jefferson Parish the weekend of Jan. 25 to 27, and the Krewe of Alla hosted Alla Gras in conjunction with its Jan. 27 parade in Algiers, across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter.
In other positive news, the National Basketball Association's 57th annual All-Star Game was held at the New Orleans Arena on Feb. 17. It's expected to generate up to $90 million in revenue for the city.
What's more, a plethora of other big events, many of them music-oriented, on tap for the rest of this year should help the city continue its rebound from its disastrous annus horribilis of 2005.
These include an expanded New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, set for April 25 to 27 and May 1 to 4; the Essence Music Festival, July 4 to 6; the Satchmo Summerfest, July 31 to Aug. 3; and the VooDoo Music Experience, Oct. 24 to 26.
In addition, this year the French Quarter Festival will celebrate its 25th anniversary, in what Romig termed "increased, enhanced form," April 11 to 13.
The event features more than 150 musical performances on 15 stages throughout the Quarter. Some 60 food and beverage booths in Jackson Square and Woldenberg Riverfront Park and at the U.S. Mint will join up to serve the "World's Largest Jazz Brunch," with authentic local cuisine from area restaurants.
The festivals, along with a host of meetings, seminars and conventions booked for New Orleans, should help propel arrivals figures to four-year highs. A recent survey by the University of New Orleans' College of Business Administration forecasted 7.9 million visitors for 2008, up from 6.8 million last year and just 3.7 million in 2006.
"We've proven with a number of big events and conventions that we are ready, willing and able to welcome both leisure visitors and large conventions," said Romig.
Still, New Orleans -- with a current population of about 300,000, two-thirds its pre-Katrina size -- is struggling to combat ongoing negative coverage in national and world media, which fuels misconceptions and thereby deters bookings among potential leisure and business visitors.
"UNO conducted a nationwide, online survey and found that one-quarter of respondents thought New Orleans still has water in the streets and one-third believed the French Quarter is badly damaged," noted Romig. "The fact that the media continue to show archival footage of the flooding does not help us."
Romig acknowledged the city continues to struggle with a high crime rate but said she believes its struggles with negative factors are overreported, in comparison to other U.S. cities. "We're still seeing a heavy focus on New Orleans from the bad side," she said. "Do we still suffer from what we feel is unfair treatment in the national media? In some cases, yes."
It didn't help that the national Commission on Presidential Debates passed over the Big Easy's bid to host one of the U.S. presidential or vice presidential debates set for September and October. The CPD reportedly felt New Orleans was not prepared to welcome events of that caliber, said Romig.
"One group says we're not ready for major events but we keep hosting such events and doing it with tremendous votes of confidence from organizations that are coming to the city," she said. "It's a catch-22."
Hotel sector bounces back
Romney, Huckabee, Obama and Clinton might not be headed Crescent City way, but those visitors who do come to New Orleans can book one of the 32,000 hotel rooms, out of a total 38,000 pre-Katrina, that have reopened. And more reopenings are on tap, said Romig.
The Hyatt Regency, shuttered since 2005 and originally set to reopen after a complete overhaul early this year, has seen its debut pushed back to late 2009. "It's a property we miss very much, especially from a meetings and conventions viewpoint, with its proximity to the Superdome," she said. "When that hotel reopens, it will be welcome news."
Meanwhile, the former Fairmont New Orleans, which had been closed indefinitely, has reportedly been purchased and is being redeveloped to fly the Waldorf-Astoria flag.
"However, from what we understand it will be a smaller hotel than it was," said Romig. "Nonetheless, it will be an important property, and we look forward to it."
And there's more good news on the tourism infrastructure front. According to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, as of last August, 69% of restaurants in Orleans Parish -- which includes the French Quarter, the Garden District, the Central Business District, Uptown and the Warehouse Arts District -- and 94% of eateries in neighboring Jefferson Parish had reopened.
"We have more fine-dining restaurants open today than ever in our city's history," said Romig. "That's amazing when you consider that we're down in population. The UNO [study] found that visitors are spending more money when they're here: They're drinking more and eating better."
Kenneth Kiesnoski is Travel Weekly's Destinations Editor. E-mail him at [email protected].