- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The paddle wheeler on which they had planned to take a Mississippi River excursion was being used to house Hurricane Katrina relief workers, but Phoenix residents Barbara Levy and Skip Hanson still had French Quarter antique stores and restaurants to enjoy.

“New Orleans will get going when tourism gets going. It’s got to start somewhere. Why not us?” Miss Levy said.

Four months after the storm, tourists are trickling back to New Orleans and more are expected for the carnival season of balls and parades that began last night, Twelfth Night, and culminates on Mardi Gras, the city’s biggest moneymaker.

“They’re coming from as far away as Germany, as far away as Paris, as far away as who-knows-where,” Mayor C. Ray Nagin said yesterday.

Many hotel rooms are still unusable, and relief and city workers fill most of those remaining. But there are still rooms to be found.

The city has no figures on exactly how many tourists have been coming to town, but around 500 arrived last weekend, if only for two days, when the cruise ship Delphin Renaissance made a New Year’s Eve port of call.

It was the first cruise ship to bring tourists to New Orleans since Katrina hit Aug. 29. Two other cruise ships are moored here but are housing city police, firefighters and relief workers.

Tourism normally pays for about 30 percent of New Orleans’ operating budget. Until the storm, the city was heading toward a third straight record year for tourism, after 8.5 million people visited in 2003 and 10.1 million in 2004.

Bill Langkopp, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association, said there were about 38,000 hotel rooms in the New Orleans area before Katrina. About 21,000 have reopened, with about 14,000 occupied by evacuees, federal workers, construction workers and others in town for the city’s recovery. That leaves 7,000 available for tourists.

And with many of the recovery workers checking out, 5,000 more rooms are expected to become available by Mardi Gras, hotel association President Darrius Gray said.

Miss Levy said she and Mr. Hanson come to New Orleans every year around this time. They made their reservations in August, before Katrina struck. After the storm, an energy company chartered the American Queen paddle wheeler for its workers through March.

Alan Tufft, a college English instructor in Stockton, Calif., and his wife, Belinda, a high school Spanish teacher, were drawn to New Orleans by the scarcity of tourists.

“We’re adventure tourists. We’ve traveled to West Africa, South America, the Middle East and so on,” Mr. Tufft said. They figured that in New Orleans, “there might not be as much frenzy and we might actually enjoy the city.”

Last week, they drove through the devastated and all-but-abandoned Ninth Ward and wandered around the much livelier French Quarter.

“This is not a recommended resort spot in that sense by any stretch of the imagination,” Mr. Tufft said as they drove through the Ninth Ward. “Still, the French Quarter’s worthwhile going to.”

Optometrist Jim Dudley and his wife, optician Sarah Seltzer of Eureka Springs, Ark., took a tour of the hard-hit areas and the French Quarter.

“I didn’t realize the extent of the devastation,” Mr. Dudley said. “I didn’t realize how block after block after block of property was just ruined. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it. It was just horrible.”



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