Katrina Anniversary: Where Things Stand on New Orleans' Economy

New Orleans Tourism Makes a Comeback

Just as before Katrina, New Orleans' biggest employer and biggest source of tax revenue is tourism. The industry employs some 70,000 people in the city, including chefs, street jugglers, blackjack dealers in its casino.

Before the storm, in 2004, New Orleans welcomed 10.1 million visitors to the city, who came for business and tourism. Post-Katrina, that number plummeted to 3.7 million visitors in 2006, according to the city's visitor's bureau.

"We had an enormous damage to our brand and to the reputation of the city," said Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. "People were not sure if they'd ever be able to visit New Orleans again."

Over the past five years, tourism has made a comeback. Visits jumped to 7.1 million in 2007, but since then progress has been more measured, hampered by the nation's economic downturn and a cut in corporate travel spending. In 2008, 7.6 million people visited New Orleans, while in 2009, the visitor's bureau counted 7.5 million visitors, who spent $4.2 billion during their travels.

'Voluntourism' Brings New Visitors to the City

By some benchmarks, the New Orleans fares even better as a destination before the storm. Millions have been spent expanding tourist sites, including the Audubon Zoo and the National World War II Museum. This year, the city had its largest Mardi Gras celebration in 25 years.

The city's tourism industry has even found ways to capitalize on the Katrina disaster. Some of the recovery has been driven by "voluntourism" -- visitors who come to the city to help rebuild -- while also fitting in some sightseeing. There are also Katrina tours that take visitors on buses or vans through such neighborhoods as the Lower Ninth Ward and near the levee breaches so that they can see firsthand what happened.

Still, the number of meetings and conventions in the city is still down when compared with pre-Katrina levels, and the city's 70,000 tourism jobs are still below the 85,000 jobs that existed previously. The is served by fewer daily flights than before the storm, and it has lost close to 1,500 fewer hotel rooms.

"We've had to work really hard to educate people," Schulz said. "In the tourism business, everything is based on image and perception. We've really focused on marketing and dispelling myths that exist."

Oil Spill Fears Hit Restaurant Industry

Now there's new fears that the BP oil spill has fed new myths that could keep visitors away, and the visitors bureau is working to get the word out that the city's most famous product -- fresh seafood -- is still plentiful and safe.

"The first six months of this year, we were back to operating as usual," said Wendy Waren, vice president of communications for the Louisiana Restaurant Association."Now, we have an oil spill."

The restaurant business recovered with the return of the population. Before Katrina, Orleans Parish had more than 1,800 food service establishments, while today they number about 1,500, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

"The last five years, we've seen a lot of new restaurants open, and a lot more diversity in the offerings," said Waren. "Our people kind of don't wait around. They reopen based on the need in their neighborhood."

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