In Katrina’s Wake

Despite damage, New Orleans remains positive

By: J.L. Erickson

Grappling to recover from one of the costliest and deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, Gulf Coast travel officials have taken the first, very early steps toward rebuilding but warn that tourism in the region particularly New Orleans, one of the top visitor destinations in the country will take months to recover.

About two weeks after Hurricane Katrina battered the area with 150-mph winds and destructive storm surges as high as 30 feet, travel in the region remained at a standstill as $60 billion in federal aid began pouring into Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, and emergency officials continued working to provide basic search and rescue and stabilization efforts for hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses.

Travel officials said the situation was improving daily but remained volatile with emergency workers still struggling to rebuild basic infrastructure such as power, phone service, water, airports and roads.

Tourism officials were continuing assessments, but in Alabama, officials said the state’s primary tourist destinations along the Gulf Coast were recovering quickly. Orange Beach welcomed visitors back for Labor Day and Bibi Gauntt of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau said Gulf Shores is expected to follow soon. Part of Fort Morgan was already open to visitors, while Dolphin Island was closed. Many affected Alabama hotels were expected to reopen later this month.

In Mississippi, where $1.5 billion in tourism developments had been under way, every one of the more than a dozen floating casinos along the shorelines of Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis were damaged or destroyed. Several, including Harrah’s Grand Casino Biloxi and Grand Casino Gulfport, were torn from their moorings and swept inland. The $235 million Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Biloxi resort that had been scheduled to open this month was damaged, and most hotels in the region were closed and projecting reopenings ranging from later this month to the end of the year. While many companies said they had plans to rebuild, in the short term, all were concentrating on caring for employees.

In New Orleans still inundated with water that poured into the below-sea-level city, submerging more than 80 percent of it tourism officials said travel to the city was closed and would remain so for months.

As the city struggled to evacuate remaining residents, and cope with contaminated water, officials had already cancelled all conventions through March 31, and it was unclear how the situation might affect the renowned Mardi Gras celebration the two-week, pre-Lent celebration that ends on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 28.

“Our first priority is to the safety and health of our fellow Louisianans ... Once the safety of our citizens is ensured, all of our efforts will be focused on rebuilding,” J. Stephen Perry, president and chief executive of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in a statement.

The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau whose St. Charles Avenue office is closed set up an alternate site in Baton Rouge, and said planning meetings between tourism and government officials were expected in coming weeks.

While officials said all of the water could be pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain within the next several weeks, and rebuilding efforts, once they begin, are expected to move quickly, reconstruction of the travel infrastructure will take months because of the widespread damage.

The city’s convention center, which housed hundreds of stranded residents awaiting evacuation during the early days of flooding, will now require comprehensive renovation and will not reopen for at least a year.

Phone service remains sporadic, and pockets of electrical power were reported in the city, but other areas may be without power for three to five months.

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport reopened Sept. 13. with limited service. At press time, all incoming access to the city and the port was closed, with ferry service suspended and virtually all area bridges closed.

Airlines are being flexible with refunds on tickets, offering options including refunds for certain tickets held to or from New Orleans through Jan. 9, and others waiving fees through Oct. 31 or later.

Accommodating evacuees and emergency crews was snarling hotel reservations throughout the region as more than 400,000 evacuees swamped neighboring states including Texas, and hotels urged agents and others to call to confirm reservations.

In the Gulf Coast, many hotels that were not damaged by the storm now are full, serving as headquarters for essential personnel such as emergency and construction workers.

Marriott and Sheraton were waiving late cancellation penalties for guests scheduled to arrive at its New Orleans properties through Sept. 15, as has Sheraton.

Hilton said most of its New Orleans hotels were closed for an undetermined time based on direction from local officials including the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, Hilton New Orleans Airport, Doubletree Hotel New Orleans and Embassy Suites Hotel New Orleans. Some, such as Embassy Suites Hotel Baton Rouge and others in that city, are expected to be closed to arrivals through at least Oct. 15, while they accommodate evacuees or emergency crews.

A bright spot amid the widespread devastation may be that the historic French Quarter so far has suffered less damage than other parts of the city because it has one of the highest elevations in the area.

Nearly all of the hospitality infrastructure survived, albeit battered. Perry said several bars have opened in the Quarter as a gathering spot for the remaining residents, though they have nothing to sell. Many restaurants and businesses everything from Brennan’s and Cafe du Monde to clubs like Hurricane City on Bourbon Street seemed to have survived the hurricane with minimal damage.

“Though we will be down for a period, there is a sense already forming among our leaders and the people that we will successfully be able to preserve all of those things which have made us world famous, and that we will be able to rebuild an even more welcoming vibrant city in which to live, work and do business,” Perry said, adding that “the challenges are immense.”

The effects of the disaster are expected to resonate around the region, where domestic visitors spent more than $4.4 billion just in Orleans Parish last year, according to a study by the Travel Industry Association of America. In neighboring Jefferson Parish, where the New Orleans airport is located, U.S. tourists brought in another $945 million. And that’s not counting international travelers, 244,000 of whom visited New Orleans last year up 23 percent over the previous year, said Cathy Keefe of TIA.

Officials said that with ongoing recovery efforts that change quickly from day to day, it’s not clear how quickly the region might be expected to recover. Previous hurricanes such as Andrew in Miami or Hugo in Charleston, S.C., didn’t wreak the same devastation but still the tourism industries in those cities took anywhere from several months to a year to recover.

“The birthplace of jazz, home of unique French and Spanish architecture and the originator of the most renowned cuisine on the planet has taken a terrible hit,” Perry said. “But its government, business and tourism industry leaders are pledging that beginning over the next few months the city will begin its efforts to be reborn better than ever.”

A Message from ASTA

With respect to the recent disaster, ASTA is asking all members affected by the hurricane to call, as soon as it is appropriate, to let the organization know the status of their operation by phone (800-ASK-ASTA) or e-mail (

If agents need help, ASTA will do all possible to match them to the appropriate resources. They already have several volunteers willing to help members in need.

(If agents need industry specific help, Member Care will forward the call/e-mail to them.)

Employment Information

The Travel Industry Association of America is partnering with the Travel & Tourism Coalition and the Travel Business Roundtable to offer tourism industry workers displaced by Hurricane Katrina free use of an online job bank.

“With so many hotels, shopping and gaming attractions, restaurants and other travel-related businesses devastated by the hurricane, our industry was particularly hard hit,” said Roger Dow, TIA president and chief executive. The site,, is already online and expected to be fully functional soon.

The association also is creating a special section to gather information and provide links to travel industry efforts in support of those affected by the hurricane. The site will include statistics showing the travel-related economic impact on the devastated regions.

CONTACTS: Tourism offices & CVBs


New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau

Alexandria/Pineville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
707 Main St.
Alexandria, LA 71301

Baton Rouge Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
730 North Blvd.
Baton Rouge, LA 70802

Southwest Louisiana/Lake Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau
1205 North Lakeshore Dr.
Lake Charles, LA 70601

Lafayette Convention & Visitors Bureau
1400 NW Evangeline Throughway
Lafayette, LA 70501

Louisiana State Tourism Office

Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau

Monroe/West Monroe Convention & Visitors Bureau
1333 State Farm Dr.
Monroe, LA 71202

Natchitoches Convention & Visitor Bureau
781 Front St.
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Ruston-Lincoln Convention & Visitors Bureau
400 North Trenton St.
Ruston, LA 71270

Shreveport-Bossier Convention & Tourist Bureau
629 Spring St.
Shreveport, LA 71101

West Baton Rouge Tourist Information
2750 North Westport Dr.
Port Allen, LA 70767

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