The Creole Queen and the Cajun Queen, two
grand paddle-wheelers that ply the Mississippi out of New Orleans,
were running seven jazz and dinner cruises a day, seven days a
week, with up to 700 aboard, before Hurricane Katrina ran over the
city last August.
Nearly a year after
storms devastated much of the Big Easy as well as Southwest
Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, the riverboats are navigating the
river channels again. But they are doing so with skeleton crews --
20 instead of 125 -- and turning in skeleton-like numbers as the
company struggles to adhere to three cruises a day, Fridays thru
The rest of the
week, sales are too small to support fuel and employee costs for
trips down the river. The belt-tightening is an attempt to chart a
course to survival, particularly over the next two
Last week, instead
of the full jazz band, we had a duo, said John Abbot, director of
sales and marketing for PaddleWheelers, the company that operates
the riverboats for a pair of local owners. People were still whooping and hollering to
the music -- theyre having a great time. But the numbers sure arent
where they were. We are down to about 100 or so passengers per
trip. We might have to scroll things back a little more.
In a city where
tourism traditionally withers as heat, humidity and the odds of a
tropical storm rise, even nine cruises a week -- down from 49 at
pre-Katrina high tide -- could seem busy as the summer drags
Even if the coming
hurricane season provokes nothing but anxiety this summer, the city
is facing a light convention calendar on top of the traditional
seasonal slowdown, and this year the industry is battling lingering
perceptions that New Orleans remains a troubled city unprepared for
tourists return. All are eating away at the odds of survival for
many smaller tourism businesses.
offer just one example of how tourism providers in New Orleans and
the rest of southern Louisiana are faring. Tourism officials
concede that the industrys recovery, though improving, remains
fragile and that many businesses are at risk as they wait for an
upturn in traffic this fall.
two-and-a-half months are going to be critical for a lot of places,
Abbot said. Its not just the restaurants and hotels that are having
trouble, it is the tour operators and suppliers. How many of them
can make it through the rest of the summer, I guess were going to
Officials said they
are concerned especially for small and minority-owned operators and
suppliers that have struggled to remain viable since the storm,
only to see visitor numbers drop so rapidly this summer that they
might end up going under anyway.
Results of a recent
study by economists at Louisiana State University -- numbers that
state tourism officials said are estimates, but the best available
to date -- show that about 9,200 tourism-related businesses were
operating in the storm-affected region at the end of 2004. Of that
number, about 1,410 have gone under since Katrinas
We are very
concerned about these business losses, and these estimates look
reasonably correct to me, said Angele Davis, Louisianas secretary
of culture, recreation and tourism. It is very difficult to
determine the exact numbers of closings, unless you go door to
door. But the estimates themselves raise a serious
Of particular worry
are threats to small venues, because potential losses in the arts
and cultural communities could damage the character and charm of
Many of these small
businesses make up the unique fabric [of Louisiana], said Davis, a
native of Baton Rouge. That fabric is so important to us if we are
to remain the authentic tourism destination we are so famous for.
Many of those small businesses are art galleries, museums, music
venues, small restaurants and the like. If we lose them, we will
not be the same.
As with other
sectors of the citys recovering economy, the tourism industry is
suffering from delays in getting federal money and financial help
into the hands of those who need it. Earlier this month the
Louisiana Recovery Authority approved a plan to distribute about
$30 million in federal funds to 13 heavily affected parishes, to be
used for marketing tourism in those areas.
The money will come
from community block grants administered by the U.S. Dept. of
Housing and Urban Development, part of a unique plan to allow the
federal monies to be invested in marketing campaigns to help
jump-start a more normal flow of visitors to the region. The
marketing campaigns will be directed by convention and visitor
bureaus and other tourism promotion organizations in the regions 13
affected parishes, aiming the funds at regional, national and
The funds are
awaiting final approval by HUD before they can be
Davis said the
state has spent about $7 million in marketing since Katrina, and
this month it won approval from the LRA to seek another $40 million
in small business assistance funding from HUD. That request is also
businesses have had lot of challenges to find financial help, Davis
said. Many dont qualify for [Small Business Administration] loans.
Many cannot qualify for a loan, period. And you are talking about
small-business owners whose homes have been damaged or destroyed,
who are trying to take out second mortgages to keep going. It is a
very critical time.
ChiQ Simms, owner
of DIVAdend Entertainment, a company that plans events and provides
marketing and public relations to tourism organizations in New
Orleans, has seen the worst of it so far. She relocated to Atlanta
after the storms and has worked since to re-establish her
operations, without much success.
My former New
Orleans clients are all in the same boat as I am, Simms said. I am
honestly exhausted with the long lines, busy phones, disrespect.
You feel lost, empty and often as if you are begging. I was turned
down for an SBA loan, and I dont know anyone like me who has
received one. I am hopeful Mayor [Ray] Nagin can do better this
time around, but that all remains to be seen.
Nagins office did
not return calls.
is organizing a New Orleans Weekend next month to gather displaced
Louisiana residents in Atlanta for an observance of the one-year
anniversary of Katrina. She said she wanted to put the issues aside
for the moment and allow fellow New Orleans refugees to celebrate
HUD-financed marketing campaign is seen as a tide that will lift
all boats, the approvals have come too late for the summer season,
leaving some complaining that the marketing funds should have been
distributed in the spring to boost the summer trade.
Abbot said that
those hanging on take cold comfort knowing they share the same
situation. For example, his competitors across the river, the New
Orleans Steamboat Co.s Natchez sternwheeler and its more modern
John J. Audubon cruise boat, also locally owned, have imposed
similar cutbacks, according to schedules posted on the companys Web
If we can survive
through September, we can survive in good shape, he said. October
looks good for us, at least on the business we have from group
bookings, convention, associations and those that book well in
advance. The open question is what will happen with walk-up
business, which is about 51% of our business altogether.
conventions on tap for August, including a conference of the Full
Gospel Baptist Church, a gathering of psychologists and another of
realtors, events that are expected to bring upwards of 60,000
visitors to New Orleans by summers end.
The number of
business failures since the storms is hard to pin down, because
some owners are still scattered around the country and their phone
numbers are no longer in service. Some remain optimistic that they
will eventually be able to return. Some are gone forever. Davis
said a flag shop popular with tourists, the oldest of its kind in
the nation, was among the failures.
A story in the New
Orleans Times-Picayune last month said nearly a quarter of the
membership of the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network, a
group that links minority and small tourism businesses in
organizing activities for groups, conventioneers and family
reunions, has become inactive.
president of the Multicultural Network, did not respond to requests
In June, Rice, Lt.
Gov. Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau
President Stephen Perry and others in the tourism community
gathered on the dais at the American Librarians Association
convention to mark the event as a turning point in the
redevelopment of the citys tourism industry.
During that event,
Perry told reporters that while things were turning around,
negative images still plagued the area long after most hotels, golf
courses, fishing excursions, casinos and other attractions had
reopened. Further, growing stress and the lack of marketing funds
could make a traditionally slow summer period even more sluggish
convention brought an economic transfusion of some $20 million to
$25 million from its 18,000 visitors, officials said. That boosted
business for restaurants, hotels and the paddle-wheelers. But the
spike faded quickly, and many businesses, like the riverboats, are
again cutting days, hours and schedules to save money.
reports that some hoteliers in the French Quarter/downtown area
have closed upper floors to cut back on costs. But officials note
that finding rooms is no longer an issue in the city, especially
now that convention business is slack. Repairs and reconstruction
have returned the majority of New Orleans hotel stock to service:
More than 27,000 of the citys 38,000 hotel rooms are ready for
Davis said the
librarians conference proved that the city and the region could
again handle a massive influx of visitors, especially since it
capped a growing list of successful events, including Mardi Gras
and the Jazz and Heritage Festival. Together, those events are
helping to erode negative consumer perceptions. But it is an
visit was a terrific success, but it is a good news and bad news
situation, Davis said. The bad news is that peoples perception of
Louisianas ability to host visitors is not a good
That view comes
from recent research that Davis office compiled, showing that the
bounce the city received from Mardi Gras hasnt been sustained as
strongly as the industry had hoped.
The research tells
us that the likelihood of visits to Louisiana from key markets has
declined a little, Davis said. It has regressed from the post-Mardi
Gras survey that we did in March. The likelihood was 46% after
Mardi Gras and rose to 50% in March, but in May it went back to
The planned $30
million in tourism marketing is expected to help alleviate that
problem, she said, adding that the return of cruise ships to the
Port of New Orleans in October would be another positive
Looking back since
Mardi Gras and the Jazz Fest, we are seeing success after success,
and we remain optimistic that the recovery is going to grow, Davis
contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].