Sports fans are giving New Orleans' prime tourism season an extra boost this year as they snap up hotel rooms and restaurant reservations for today's college football national title game and Feb. 17's NBA All-Star game.
January through May always brings high-profile spectacles such as the Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras and the Jazz & Heritage Festival. But hosting two more major events that rotate yearly among other cities could result in at least $300 million in additional revenue for the tourism industry after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau says.
"Now through Memorial Day we have a great body of business on the books. We truly feel like we're back," bureau president Stephen Perry says.
Despite the city's problems with crime and the slow pace of rebuilding residential areas, Perry expects visitation to approach 8 million this year. That's up from an estimated 6.8 million in 2007. Visitation in 2004, the year before Katrina, reached about 10 million.
Some of that increase will come from the Bowl Championship Series title game between Ohio State and LSU in the Louisiana Superdome. The showdown is expected to bring in $200 million to $250 million in tourism business.
All 72,000 tickets have been sold, and hotel reservations in the main tourist areas "have been very tight — we filled up within 24 hours of the teams being announced," says Fred Sawyers, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association.
"You can find a room here or there, but even mid-level hotels will run $300-plus per night, and those are the highest rates we see for any event."
The metropolitan area now has about 32,000 lodging rooms, compared with 38,000 before Katrina, says Sawyers, and all major tourist hotels are open except for the Hyatt Regency and the recently sold Fairmont (now a Waldorf-Astoria Collection hotel). Both are scheduled to reopen in 2009.
Many hotels also expect a robust February, thanks to the NBA All-Star game, whose free-spending corporate crowd is expected to generate about $90 million in tourism business, and the Mardi Gras carnival celebration Feb. 5, which falls early this year.
Local businesses also got a small boost from Tuesday's Georgia-Hawaii Sugar Bowl.
Because Hawaii's fans had to travel an unusually long distance, they tended to book longer stays — four or five days instead of the usual two or three, Sawyers says.
"I felt like Hawaii traveled well," he says. "They really put down the dollars."