New Orleans, 10 years later

The Superdome as seen from the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.
The Superdome as seen from the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

New Orleans' renaissance

As general manager of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, Michael Smith found himself coordinating what became the city's ground zero during the three months after the storm until the hotel, itself badly damaged by the storm, closed its doors on Dec. 15, 2005, not to open again for six years. Read More

Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded, tens of thousands of people were left homeless, the city had no power or running water and automobiles were rendered useless by submerged roadways. The "storm," as locals here call it, was among the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, leaving more than 1,800 people dead and estimates of $100 billion in damages.

Somehow, despite all of this, Stephen Perry, the CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, saw reason for hope.

"We had no idea if we'd ever be whole again," he said this June over tea at the city's iconic Windsor Court hotel. "But I could see that the historic core -- Marigny, the French Quarter and Uptown -- was dry. That meant that the parts of the city that were irreplaceable were safe. We knew then that we could reconstruct what we were, despite the depth of the tragedy."

Although it took years, the city did rebuild. But Perry was off base about one thing: New Orleans would not only reconstruct what it was; it became a different city, and according to most people I talked to here during my June visit, a better one with a much brighter future.

This month, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina deluged this city, New Orleans has still not regained its prestorm population, and not until this year are its tourist numbers expected to top prestorm levels. Despite this, there are 600 more restaurants than there were in 2005 and 853 more hotel rooms. The cruise industry surpassed 1 million passengers for the first time in 2014 and helped foster the development of new pedestrian areas on the waterfront.

The Four Seasons will develop a new hotel project in the vacant waterfront World Trade Center building.
The Four Seasons will develop a new hotel project in the vacant waterfront World Trade Center building. Photo Credit: Paul Broussard

 This year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival attracted 460,000 people, more than ever before, part of what officials here predict will be a record-breaking year for both visitor arrivals and spending.

The city is slated to open a new, $650 million airport terminal in 2018 and plans to expand its convention center with a hotel and entertainment district. Neighborhoods that were once considered too seedy for tourist maps are now staples of walking and cycling tours. And 10 years ago, those cycling tours would not have existed: New Orleans now has more than 100 miles of dedicated, paved bike lanes. Before 2005, it had five miles.

While everyone seems to have a different theory as to why the city was able to not just rebound but improve, they can all agree on one thing: The tourism industry was central to its recovery and resurgence.

On Katrina’s 10th anniversary, “Katrina tattoos,” the spray-painted marks left by military and rescue crews looking for survivors, are still a common sight.
On Katrina’s 10th anniversary, “Katrina tattoos,” the spray-painted marks left by military and rescue crews looking for survivors, are still a common sight. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

Tourism has long been the lifeblood of New Orleans, the city's No. 1 industry, employing almost 80,000 people and generating more tax revenue than any other sector. Last year, the city attracted 9.5 million visitors, who spent a record $6.81 billion.

If New Orleans were going to survive Katrina, its travel and tourism industry needed to be the catalyst.

In 2004, the year prior to Katrina, a record 10.1 million people visited the Big Easy, and there was no indication of a slowdown. The storm both halted and reversed that growth. In 2006, just 3.7 million people visited New Orleans, contributing just $2.8 billion into the needy city's coffers.

It was not lost on hospitality leaders that for the city to move forward, the travel industry needed to bounce back fast.

But first, those leaders needed to be reminded of just how special their hometown was, not only to them but to the nation at large.

"We saw that there was a deep, visceral connection to New Orleans around the country," Perry said. "The belief was that it was a place worth preserving and saving and that it was unique to America. Learning that buoyed us even more."

Saving New Orleans, he said, "was a mission of a lifetime for every one of us. Everything was on the line. Over the next five years, what was accomplished here was one of this country's greatest success stories."

Ralph Brennan, a third-generation scion of a family with more than 15 New Orleans restaurants, including the French Quarter's Brennan's, which opened in 1946, and Red Fish Grill, the first restaurant in the city to reopen after the storm, said that Katrina changed the local mindset.

The Red Fish Grill restaurant, seen here in 2005, which was up and running a month after Katrina.
The Red Fish Grill restaurant, seen here in 2005, which was up and running a month after Katrina.

"It taught us how special this place is, first as home, and then as a destination," Brennan said. "Those of us who came back wanted to be back and were going to do whatever needed to be done to fix things."

And in the direct aftermath of Katrina, much of what was required had to be done by business owners themselves.

Katrina, Brennan said, "taught us a huge amount of resilience and leadership, because there was so much failure of leadership. Because the government was not prepared for this, and we had to work around it in a lot of cases. But the community came together. It taught us a lot of lessons."

That attitude, according to Brennan and others in hospitality, was conveyed to the city's visitors, a group whose demographics, many people say, changed after the storm.

"Everyone wanted to bring New Orleans back because they realized how unique and important it was to the United States," said Morgan Molthrop, co-founder of Custom New Orleans, a tour operator. "There was a movement to save New Orleans that drew [tourists] here who wanted authenticity. This brought a more open-minded demographic than ever before, from New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Canada."

New Orleans, 10 years later

Perry concurs, noting that last year, the 9.52= million visitors spent 40% more than 10 million visitors spent in 2004, a fact he attributes to a wealthier, more sophisticated visitor. Last year, 39% of tourists had household incomes of more than $100,000.

"That's a game-changer," Perry said.  "We are getting an increasingly sophisticated demographic. That comes with new development in food, music and shopping, instead of kids [drinking] Hand Grenades on Bourbon Street."

The return of native sons, daughters

Molthrop in many ways symbolizes what people here have cited as a significant reason for the city's success: the reversal of its brain drain.

Molthrop grew up in New Orleans' Uptown district, but like many locals, he left for college and never looked back from his career in New York and Los Angeles. Until the day Katrina hit.

After the storm ravaged his hometown, the former lawyer and Wall Street executive was driven to come back and help his city by entering the tourism arena and showing visitors "the real New Orleans."

Colorful houses abound in neighborhoods like the Marigny and the Bywater.
Colorful houses abound in neighborhoods like the Marigny and the Bywater. Photo Credit: Paul Broussard

He is not the only one. The city lost tens of thousands of its residents after Katrina, but by many accounts, its slow population gains are the result of a young, entrepreneurial class that is revitalizing New Orleans' restaurant, arts and cultural sector. These people are both former sons and daughters of the city as well as people with no connection at all who wanted to help get it back on its feet.

"A lot of people came to help and didn't leave," said Marci Schramm, executive director of French Quarter Festivals Inc., which produces the French Quarter Festival, Satchmo SummerFest and Christmas New Orleans Style. Those who stayed, she said, included "creative people and musical people who adopted New Orleans as home."

Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., the economic development organization for southeast Louisiana, said that the continued and growing investment in the travel and hospitality sector has been crucial to New Orleans' economic recovery. He cited the recent announcements that Four Seasons would develop a hotel project in the abandoned waterfront World Trade Center building and Viking River Cruises' commitment to homeport its first U.S. river cruise vessels in New Orleans.

This started, Hecht said, with what he calls one of the most important moments in the city's comeback: the massive rebuild of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. The hotel had been heavily damaged by the storm and did not reopen until 2011, after a $285 million rebuilding.

Hecht believes that this was second only to the reopening of the Superdome in terms of both practical and symbolic importance.

"The fact that the Hyatt Corporation committed to building 1,200 rooms sent a really strong market signal that they had confidence in the future of New Orleans," he said.  

Nowadays, hoteliers are vying for a piece of New Orleans in a way that seemed unimaginable 10 years ago. The city has seen a steady march of hotel reopenings, renovations and new developments since 2005 and has opened more than 4,000 rooms since then. Many of those rooms had been closed by the storm, enabling the city to surpass pre-Katrina inventory by 853 hotel rooms. Even the Hyatt is feeling the occupancy boom and now plans to open a 194-room Hyatt House hotel in an office building adjacent to the Hyatt Regency in November 2015.

Frenchmen Street Art Market in the Marigny neighborhood.
Frenchmen Street Art Market in the Marigny neighborhood. Photo Credit: Rebecca Ratliff

More than 4,200 rooms are slated for development over the next three years, with plans to build coming from new brands like Virgin Hotels and Marriott's Moxy brand, which plans to open two of its millennials-focused properties in the city, as well as new boutique hotels like a church-to-hotel conversion in the Marigny/Bywater neighborhood.

There is also an Ace Hotel planned for Canal Street and the aforementioned Four Seasons development, which would bring the luxury brand into the city's World Trade Center, a long-vacant building towering over the waterfront at the foot of Canal Street. Many here say its reopening as a luxury hotel of the Four Seasons' caliber would mark a major milestone in New Orleans' improbable comeback.

"Global brands now see New Orleans as a viable place to do business," Hecht said.

Finally, it's hard to talk to locals about the city's recovery and not hear a mention of the cruise industry.

The Carnival Dream sailing out of New Orleans, one of two Carnival Cruise Line vessels that homeport year-round in the city.
The Carnival Dream sailing out of New Orleans, one of two Carnival Cruise Line vessels that homeport year-round in the city.

At first glance, looking at the number of ships now vs. 10 years ago, the industry doesn't appear that robust. The two ships that homeport here year-round are both Carnival Cruise Line vessels, plus one Norwegian Cruise Line seasonal homeport. Royal Caribbean International said last year that it would not return next season. But the number of vessels belie the passenger counts. In 2004, the industry brought in 734,643 cruise passengers. That number plummeted to 155,806 in 2006. Last year, the port handled more than 1 million passengers. Even with Royal Caribbean's decision not to return next year, those numbers are expected to remain steady with Carnival's plan to replace one of its ships with a larger vessel next year. 

But the cruise industry represents more than those numbers. For one thing, the sector was among the first areas of tourism to recover. In October 2006, the Norwegian Sun entered the Port of New Orleans as the first cruise ship to homeport there post-Katrina, a pivotal moment for the city's psyche. A Carnival ship returned in 2007, and the industry has only grown from there.

"Cruise tourism is the quickest path back to tourism, because we're able to mobilize and actually get back to destinations much faster than land-based tourism can recover," said Terry Thornton, Carnival's senior vice president of itinerary planning.

What has also been a boon to the city is that the cruise passengers who embark from New Orleans tend to add more pre- or post-stays than passengers in other embarkation ports, and they spend more money. A Port of New Orleans study determined more than 60% of cruise passengers spend an average of two nights in New Orleans, and those passengers and shipboard crew spend about $75 million in New Orleans annually, or about $235 per passenger per day, as opposed to the industry average of about $93 per person, per day.

French Quarter Festivals' Schramm said that after Katrina, "The cruise ships adopted New Orleans. They brought people that would have maybe never come."

At Carnival Cruise Line, the decision to re-enter the New Orleans market was part of its commitment to try to help the city's comeback. Since then, Carnival has ramped up its New Orleans operations every year.

"We now are the only company doing year-round cruises, and we're certainly the only one doing two year-round cruises," Thornton said. "So we are New Orleans now. And we're pretty proud of that."

This article was updated Aug. 6 to note that a 194-room Hyatt House hotel will open in an office building adjacent to the Hyatt Regency in November 2015. An incorrect date appeared in an earlier version.


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