Gulf Coast Gets Boost From Volun-Tourism New Orleans is rebuilding, 19 months after Hurricane Katrina and massive flooding. But the Gulf Coast has found help from an unlikely place: tourists and convention-goers. Increasingly, visitors are adding a few days to their vacations or conventions to pitch in and help people get back on their feet. It's called "volun-tourism."

Gulf Coast Gets Boost From Volun-Tourism

Gulf Coast Gets Boost From Volun-Tourism

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New Orleans is rebuilding, 19 months after Hurricane Katrina and massive flooding. But the Gulf Coast has found help from an unlikely place: tourists and convention-goers. Increasingly, visitors are adding a few days to their vacations or conventions to pitch in and help people get back on their feet. It's called "volun-tourism."

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans' tourism industry, which had been the backbone of the city's economy. The storm scattered hotel and restaurant workers and scared off visitors and conventions for months. The city has worked hard to get the word out that classic attractions like the French Quarter and the Garden District were largely undamaged.

Now tens of thousands of tourists are coming back to New Orleans and they're veering off the beaten paths. They want to see hurricane damage and also pitch in with the recovery efforts.

As Eve Troeh reports, some are calling the trend "volun-tourism."

EVE TROEH: Barry Ulkey(ph) is a librarian from Portland, Oregon. She's spending a week of paid vacation in New Orleans, but her days aren't exactly leisurely.

(Soundbite of hammer tapping)

TROEH: She's helping take apart a house in New Orleans' Seventh Ward, miles from downtown. She and a small team pull nails out of old Cyprus wood planks. They'll be used to rebuild another house.

Ms. BARRY ULKEY (Volunteer for New Orleans Recovery Efforts): It's very labor intensive but it feels really good. And we have people who have the means to put their own resources to a trip, take their own time and do something that might actually have an impact instead of sitting next to a pool, sipping margaritas, I think that's fabulous.

TROEH: Ulkey is one of more than a hundred people in a delegation from Oregon. They're staying in nice hotels and eating at the city's fine restaurants. Just the kind of visitors the city hoped and planned to bring back after Hurricane Katrina. But officials didn't planned that the city's recovery would become an attraction in itself. Thousands now add an extra day to their trip just to volunteer. Oregonian Patrick Eckerd(ph) says the ethics of outsiders going into devastated neighborhoods can be tricky.

Mr. PATRICK ECKERD (Volunteer for New Orleans Recovery Efforts): We were concerned about it seeming frivolous for us to come here. The local people to think, you know, are you just coming down to gawk or you're being entertained by our tragedy.

TROEH: The house that Eckerd and Ulkey are working on belongs to a church run by pastor Bruce Davenport. He spent the morning educating the Oregon crew about his neighborhood. It sits next to an eerie expanse of abandoned redbrick buildings and a former public housing complex. Davenport says volun-tourism can bridge the gap between the economic need to attract tourists and the daily struggles of locals.

Mr. BRUCE DAVENPORT (Pastor, St. John #5 Faith Church): They're not doing this because they feel guilty. They're doing this because they know their civil duty is to help somebody. If you're go just worry about the tourism, I had the community together - what's good is the tourism going to do.

TROEH: There is no central office coordinating volun-tourism. It's mostly handled through church groups, convention planners and national non-profits like Mercy Corps and Habitat for Humanity. So it's hard to gauge the impact. Nancy Troshclare(ph) runs a tourism company called Destination New Orleans that caters to business travelers. She says it's a lot of work to set up the projects and it's not free.

Ms. NANCY TROSHCLARE (Manager, Destination New Orleans): Even if it's just planting a garden in our city park. They have to have gloves. They have to have rakes and shovels and trash bags. They have to have lunch and soft drinks and Gatorade waiting for them. They have to be able to invest in themselves to be able to do the projects.

TROEH: It's not uncommon for disaster sites to become tourist attractions but the hands-on aspect sets Katrina apart. Tourism historian Mark Soeter(ph) points to 9/11 and the millions of people who converged on Ground Zero. He says Katrina has had the opposite effect on New Orleans.

Mr. MARK SOETER (Tourism Historian): It tends to scatter visitors across the city. And everyone can have his or her own personal experience or past through the city.

TROEH: Soeter says in the long term some type of museum or a memorial may serve as a central place to remember Katrina but for now, tourists will continue to donned hardhats, facemasks and work gloves to experience the damage of the storm first hand.

For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans.

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