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New Orleans, on the upswing, calls back visitors

SmarterTravel

A few months have passed since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and perhaps you’d like to return for Mardi Gras, to feast on jambalaya, or to volunteer, but are unsure about the state of the city.

The good news: New Orleans is cleaning up and is very ready for visitors. Flights are returning to the city, with more expected to be scheduled before Mardi Gras. Many hotels have re-opened and are welcoming tourists. Restaurants and bars have plenty of the city’s famous dishes and drinks available for tasting. Best yet, your tourism dollars will help support the city’s rehabilitation efforts.

What to expect

“People will be pleasantly surprised to see how well the historical district of New Orleans fared,” states Kim Priez, vice president of tourism for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Expect great music and wonderful food. All the favorite restaurants should be open by the first of the year. Food will be flowing and musicians are coming back.”

“I call it a tale of two cities,” agrees Marjorie Weiner, a New Orleans resident for the past 11 years. “Part of the city looks like it was beaten up a little. Then there are parts of the city to the east that are waylaid. But all things that tourists like to do are available. The part of New Orleans that tourists generally visit was lightly damaged.”

Currently, New Orleans is receiving about 66 flights per day, slightly less than half of pre-Katrina levels. As Mardi Gras approaches, the airlines plan to schedule more flights, hoping to have about 75 percent of typical per-day flights back. Nine airlines are serving Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport: AirTran, American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Northwest, Southwest, TED, and United.

Hotels are returning to normal as well. “20,000 rooms are open right now,” notes Priez. “26,000 rooms will be open by Mardi Gras, compared to 34,000 from before. The bureau has met with all of our members to see how they’re doing. Most businesses are back, and we are very confident that we can live up to all [visitor] expectations.”

While most attractions have re-opened, a few sites are still closed. Most streetcars are running, except for the St. Charles Street line. The Aquarium of the Americas will re-open in June. Canal Place will be opening again in late winter. For more details, the CVB has compiled a listing of what’s open, and posts updates on its site regarding the state of area attractions.

Environmentally, the historic section of the city is very safe to visit. “The air is fine, the water is fine,” Priez claims. The residential neighborhoods of Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward, however, are still uninhabitable. Most tourists didn’t usually visit those areas, mentions Weiner. “Maybe now they would go only as a curiosity.”

“Some residents would prefer that [tourists] don’t go out to neighborhoods that were destroyed, gawking,” Priez states. “But even that is part of this whole process. A lot of visitors do not realize how important their visit is to us. The best charitable work they can do is to come here and have a great time. Money they spend goes into paying for police and fire service and EMS. It’s important to get the economy back.”

How you can help

If you’re interested in going to New Orleans to help rebuild, consider the following options:

  • If you are traveling with a group of 10 or more, the CVB has specific project itineraries. Call 800-672-6124 to inquire about group volunteer projects.
  • Listen to local radio. “Visitors can find out about things to do by calling local radio stations, they’ll [also] have public service announcements,” notes Weiner.
  • Email the CVB, as it’s currently putting together volunteer itineraries for individual visitors. Send all inquiries to tourism@neworleanscvb.com.

Mardi Gras

2006 marks the 150th anniversary of Mardi Gras, and events are scheduled to begin on February 18, culminating on Fat Tuesday, February 28. This year, parades will be consolidated, as the festivities will be held over a shorter time period. “This might be better for the visitors, as more is being done in less time,” Priez says.

“Mardi Gras will be a sell-out,” predicts Priez. “Travelers need to book airfare and hotel rooms now because of reduced air service and hotels will be in demand.” If you have difficulty securing accommodations, contact the CVB for assistance.

Weiner also stresses the importance of Mardi Gras celebrations, both for residents and visitors. “Mardi Gras is something [the city] would have even if no tourists came to it. This is a ritual. In the suburbs, it’s very much a family event; it’s a chance for everyone to get together, mix and mingle, have a good time. It’s a healing thing. This year’s Mardi Gras will be shorter, abbreviated, and toned down a little. [But] it would be just as [strange to] imagine canceling Mardi Gras as it would be to cancel Christmas.”

For a complete Mardi Gras schedule and more information, visit the New Orleans CVB Mardi Gras website.

Whenever you decide to go to New Orleans, expect to see a city on the upswing and to receive a very welcome reception. “People in New Orleans love tourists, unlike other cities. They’re ready for people to come back!” Weiner says.

“Expect a lot of people saying thank you,” Priez states. “The citizens are very thankful for visitors.”

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