As waters recede, tourists trickle back

New Orleans' $13.5 billion tourism industry is restarting. City lays plans to kick-start it.

Bobby Davis saw a peculiar sight the other day: a young couple walking down Decatur Street, holding hands and stopping to take photos of each other in front of the centuries-old architecture.

"They looked like they were on their honeymoon," says the head chef at the Palm Court Jazz Café, poking his head out the door to get a better look.

Normally, that's the stuff New Orleans depends on. Well, that and rowdy college kids. But these days, any return to normal in the Big Easy gets a second glance - especially when the sight is tourists, the city's pre-Katrina lifeblood.

Almost six weeks after the hurricane sank the local economy, businesses that cater exclusively to tourists are slowly beginning to reopen. The Louis Armstrong International Airport is expanding the number of flights, and there's even a scaled-down Mardi Gras being planned for Feb. 28.

But city officials say it's going to take a lot more to persuade tourists to come back than simply hanging the "We're Open" sign on the door.

One example of the extra steps being considered: Last week Mayor Ray Nagin said he would ask the state Legislature for expanded gambling in the city's central business district in hopes of accelerating the return of tourism. "Now is the time for us to think out of the box," he said at a press conference.

Last year, visitors spent $13.5 billion in New Orleans and other areas hard-hit by hurricane Katrina, with tourism accounting for roughly 1 in 7 jobs in the Crescent City alone.

"It's had a big impact on the economy, especially as conventions have had to relocate," says Cathy Keefe with the Travel Industry Association of America. "But by the end of the year, I think we are going to see recovery workers leaving and more venues opening up. I don't think tourists are going to give up on the city for long."

A rare few, like the couple on Decatur Street, have already been down to look around. But many of them are actually military personnel and construction workers with a day off, or residents who are coming to survey their homes. They poke around the French Quarter, snapping photos and buying T-shirts and beads - appreciating what little diversion there is.

Brian McSwain is an out-of-state college student who's come back to check out the damage to his family's home in New Orleans. His friend, Crystal Turner, is tagging along just to look around.

"I wanted to see if it was as bad as what we're seeing on the news," she says, her point-and-shoot camera on her wrist.

Nearby at the French Market, usually bustling with hundreds of vendors selling everything from organic produce to handcrafted earrings, the first few merchants are back.

Sirak Getaneh is busily setting up his shop for the day, filling tables and racks with Chanel and Gucci knockoff sunglasses and sequined tube tops. "There's not a lot of business, but I have to make a living," he says, slipping a tasseled miniskirt onto a lonely mannequin.

He says most of his customers are out-of-town law enforcement, contract workers, or relief staff.

"A lot of these workers are getting really bored," says Melvin Box, selling T-shirts at the next stall. "Nothing but Bourbon Street is open right now. The city is Bourbon Street right now."

Mr. Box says he reopened his shop because he couldn't afford not to - though he is doing only about a third of his prehurricane business.

Now, all his merchandise is Katrina related. His $10 T-shirts bear slogans like "I survived Hurricane Katrina" and "God Bless New Orleans." And while they are popular, he's worried.

"We survive on the conventions," he says. "We will have to make do until then. We might get some help from Mardi Gras, but you've got to have all the hotels up and running."

City officials say 80 percent of the hotels will be open by the end of October, and a big tourism campaign is in the works to bring people back by the first of the year.

But the New Orleans' Morial Convention Center is closed for renovations until March 31, with the city losing $3.5 billion in revenue as meetings relocated. There is even talk of tearing down the 30-year-old Superdome, which could mean further loss of revenue.

So far, the few tourists here are trying to do their part. They are shopping, eating, and listening to music as they wander about the French Quarter - the only part of the city that took relatively little damage.

"We are trying to patronize as many places as possible and spend as much money as we can to get people back on their feet," says Ashley Enlow, who is helping her mother clean up her property.

At a souvenir shop on Bourbon Street, Becky Sass and Martha Warhover are doing the same. They are donning feather boas and giggling. "Seeing some of the devastation has made it difficult to relax and have a good time," says Ms. Sass. But they are managing.

As they walk out, Carla Boullion hands them a flier. She's trying to drum up business for a Garden District Ghost Tour that afternoon.

"We're the first tour company to reopen," she says proudly. "And it's not like there aren't people here. They want to see a little history, have a little fun. There are no movie theaters open, no plays or concerts to attend."

Over the weekend, she led about a dozen people on French Quarter Ghost Tours, and she says the few residents who are back applauded when they came by.

People were also clapping when the steamer Natchez pulled into port last week. It usually runs full three times a day, but it currently serves only lunch and dinner dockside.

Debbie Fagnano has been playing the ship's calliope for 16 years. "Back in the 1800s, they didn't have mass communication, so the purpose of the calliope was to signal that the boat was coming," she says. "We had much the same purpose last week: to signal that a little bit of life was coming back to the city." As it approached, she says, people came running.

Even though the songs are upbeat - these days, Ms. Fagnano always begins with "Blue Skies" - she says it's sometimes hard to play. "You do feel alone. The people just aren't here - the street vendors and the psychics. You just try to smile and move on."

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