A CITY REBORN
THE WORLD HAS RALLIED AROUND NEW ORLEANS SINCE HURRICANE KATRINA AND NEW TOURISM ATTRACTIONS ARE THRIVING
New Orleans had just 3.7 million visitors in 2006, the first full year after Hurricane Katrina. Last year, there were 9.5 million visitors. The city has 600 more restaurants than 10 years ago. And hotel occupancy rates are higher than they were before the levees broke on August 29, 2005, flooding 80 per cent of the city and killing hundreds.
Attractions have blossomed beyond classics like the French Quarter, Garden District and The National World War II Museum. Today’s must-sees include the hipster Bywater neighbourhood, the new Crescent Park along the Mississippi River and a rebuilt historic market, St. Roch, that was destroyed by the flood.
Bourbon St is still packed with tourists and live music once more spills out of seemingly every door on Frenchmen St in the nearby Marigny neighbourhood. But now visitors flock to the art houses on St. Claude Avenue, too.
“It’s a fantastic time to go there,” said Diana Schwam, author of the travel guidebook Frommer’s EasyGuide to New Orleans.
“The post-Katrina energy that has emerged is insane. It’s just really fun and exciting.”
Scott Berman, US hospitality & leisure practice leader at accounting firm PwC, noted New Orleans was not only a leisure tourist destination but also one of the country’s biggest convention destinations.
“The group business has come back, too,” Mr Berman said, adding that the city’s challenges were not limited to rebuilding post-Katrina: “Their rebirth has also come post-recession.”
Here’s a look at New Orleans’s tourism comeback, including new attractions and Katrina commemoration plans.
THE FOOD SCENE
New Orleans has always been known for its unique food: Gulf seafood, Creole cuisine, beignets, po’boys and gumbo. But now the ethnic and contemporary restaurant scenes, less noticed by many visitors before the storm, are booming, too, making the city even more of an international foodie mecca.
Its string of James Beard award winners has continued unabated since the storm. New Orleans now features 1400 restaurants, from holes in the wall to high-end, from classic Creole cooking to contemporary, ethnic and fusion cuisine. Latin and Vietnamese eateries, long established in certain pockets in and around the city, have modernised and gone mainstream.
The craft cocktail trend has helped fuel the renaissance of the bar scene in New Orleans, birthplace of the Sazerac. Classic restaurants like Galatoire’s, Brennan’s and Antoine’s are thriving but so are those run by newer chefs. One of the biggest superstars now is Alon Shaya, an Israeli who left the city after Katrina to hone his skills in Italy.
A TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE OF RECOVERY
Berman said this isn’t the first time a destination has used a catastrophic event to reinvent itself. For example, Miami’s rebuilding after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 helped turn it from an oldschool winter getaway to a stylish luxury destination. Even the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan post-9/11 recast New York’s financial district as a tourist hub.
But that doesn’t mean New Orleans’s renaissance was inevitable. It took the vision, hard work and commitment of residents and officials. But it also wouldn’t have happened without government funding, private investment, media attention and the millions of tourists who came not just for mardi gras and Jazz Fest but to intentionally support the city by spending their money there and participating in service trips to help rebuild.
“We couldn’t have gotten where we’ve gotten in the past 10 years without a lot of support around the world and we’re eternally grateful for that,” said Kristian Sonnier, spokesman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Hotels have played a role in the comeback. “Their hotel inventory has expanded, modernised and succeeded,” Mr Berman said, adding that the city has also “become a bit of a test kitchen for new products and new brands”, especially properties with an urban chic sensibility designed to appeal to millennials. For example, Marriott opened its first AC hotel in the US in New Orleans and plans its first US Moxy hotel there, too.
NEW ATTRACTIONS AND KATRINA COMMEMORATIONS
New attractions include Crescent Park on the Mississippi riverfront, a streetcar spur into the trendy Bywater area, a permanent Katrina exhibit at The Presbytere museum and the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, which tells the neighbourhood’s story of devastation and rebuilding. The new Lafitte Greenway, a linear park built on an old railway, will offer bike paths and strolls through a series of neighbourhoods. And the Viking River Cruises company is opening its first US offices in New Orleans in 2017, with two ships for Mississippi cruises.
The August 29 anniversary will be marked with a day of service, a wreath-laying, a “Resilience Festival” and hundreds of other events, from burlesque shows to art exhibits.