New Orleans Businesses Ready for Tourists' Return

Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, tourist dollars accounted for more than one-third of the city's income. Since the devastating storm, most of those dollars have disappeared. Businesses that rely on tourists are desperately hoping a multi-million dollar information and advertising campaign will start bringing back more visitors.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The number of visitors to New Orleans has plummeted by half, since Hurricane Katrina. That loss of tourist dollars is having a big impact on the city's budget, which relied on a third of its revenue from visitors' spending. As businesses hurt, New Orleans wants everyone to know that it's back in business.

NPR's MELISSA JAEGAR-MILLER reports.

MELISSA JAEGAR-MILLER reporting:

It's a typically muggy summer night in the French Quarter, and a handful of tourists are gathered on the sidewalk in front of a large woman, decked out all in black.

Unidentified Woman: Good evening everybody.

Crowd: Good evening.

Onyx (New Orleans Ghost Tour guide): My name is Onyx. I'm going to be your guide tonight for your tour into the realm of the unexplained, the unsettling, the unfortunate.

JAEGAR-MILLER: The unsettling tales of murder, suicide and hauntings, that Onyx will tell these tourists, date back to previous centuries. But with recent stories of destruction and death still echoing in New Orleans, fewer tourists are coming here to hear these old ghost stories.

Ms. LISA HUBERT (Owner, New Orleans Ghost Tour): Last pre-K, pre- Katrina, we were putting a 150 people out on the street every single day of the year.

JAEGAR-MILLER: That's Lisa Hubert. She owns the New Orleans Ghost Tour. Her company used to employ 20 guides. Now, she's down to four.

Ms. HUBERT: I look at CNN and see, New Orleans still under floodwaters, and I want to scream, no, that was in August.

JAEGAR-MILLER: Hubert kept her business going but only by depleting her savings and her daughter's college fund. Many of the visitors who are here, like Jackie and Terry Blackard came down from nearby Baton Rouge. They say tourists and even some of their friends, are still afraid of coming to New Orleans.

Ms. JACKIE BLACKARD (Tourist): They're not seeing the good things that are happening on the news. They're just still showing the horror stories. And no, no one's going to come down and see that.

Mr. TERRY BLACKARD (Tourist): But as far as the French Quarter, it's about like it always was, because it really didn't get a lot of water.

JAEGAR-MILLER: The lack of flooding in the Quarter speeded up the physical recovery here, but tourists have been much slower to return. However, the Convention and Visitor's Bureau says the fall is beginning to look up, with more conventions booked, and the New Orleans Saints will be playing again, at the refurbish Superdome. One of the biggest challenges is going to be convincing people they don't' need to feel guilty about coming to have a good time.

Mary Beth Romig is with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. She says locals want tourists to come and enjoy themselves.

Ms. MARY BETH ROMIG (New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau): We want people to still believe in New Orleans and not give up on us. And while there is a greater part of the city that still is suffering horribly, the historic and tourism core of the city is thriving, and in many ways enjoying the spirit like no other time in history.

JAEGAR-MILLER: Some of that spirit is evident in the uptown neighborhood, where damaged was minimal. Locals are fueling a boom in business on Magazine Street, a six-mile stretch of boutiques and restaurants. For some shop-owners, business has been better.

Mr. GREG DIETZ (Owner, Theo's Neighborhood Pizza): If you are able to open yourself back up after the hurricane, uptown, you did very well.

JAEGAR-MILLER: That's Gregg Dietz. He's one of the owners of Theo's Neighborhood Pizza. The restaurant reopened just five weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit and was immediately overwhelmed with customers. Finding enough staff was a challenge, and employees' hourly wages have since doubled. Despite the extra cost, profits are up 40 percent from before the storm.

Mr. DIETZ: You know, I hate to say it, we were on the right street at the right time. I don't want to take away from our pizza, our pizza is great too.

JAEGAR-MILLER: Dietz says he's like other business owners on Magazine Street. The success feels bittersweet.

MELISSA JAEGAR-MILLER, NPR News, New Orleans.

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