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Mardi Gras to fatten New Orleans tourism

By Marnie Hunter
CNN

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Many of the top tourist stops in New Orleans, such as Bourbon Street, above, have reopened or plan to by spring or summer.

SPECIAL REPORT

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• Gallery: Landmarks over time
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WHAT'S OPEN?


Status of some tourist attractions:

  • Harrah's Casino: open

  • Audubon Zoo: open limited hours; hours extended starting in March.

  • Audubon Aquarium of the Americas: closed; hoping for summer reopening

  • National D-Day Museum: open for regular tours

  • New Orleans Museum of Art: opening March 3

  • Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1: open for regular tours
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    (CNN) -- Six months after Hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras floats, beads and revelry are luring in visitors, and helping New Orleans' devastated tourism industry roll toward recovery.

    "For us it will be a little bit smaller than prior years. But the way everybody is looking at it here, it's sort of the community planting the flag in the ground saying 'We're back,'" said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

    Perry expects the city to see only 60 or 70 percent of the usual number of Mardi Gras visitors this year -- 300,000 to 400,000 people. (Let the good times roll)

    Hospitality is the largest industry in New Orleans, having employed 85,000 people before Katrina and generating about a third of the city's operating budget, according to Perry. Before Mardi Gras, tourism had rebounded to about half its normal level.

    Mardi Gras usually brings in about $300 million in tourist dollars, and Perry expects at least $200 million this year.

    "This launches the recovery of not only the city and its economics, but paves the way for people to begin to come home because it provides the funding that we need for things like schools and hospitals and police," he said.

    Jamie Hood, 40, from Atlanta, Georgia, visited the Crescent City with friends last weekend as Mardi Gras celebrations kicked off.

    "The parades were wonderful. From that aspect we had a great time and it was just like the old days," he said. Hood is a logistics and transportation provider, making his third Mardi Gras trip in as many years.

    Not everything was just like the old days, of course. The neighborhoods he and his friends passed through shocked them.

    "You hear the terms 'war zone' or 'it looked like a bomb went off' -- I couldn't describe it any better. That's really what it looked like," Hood said. "The actual French Quarter was the same as it always was to me."

    Many of the city's tourist attractions are open for business. Others plan to reopen later in the spring and summer.

    Harrah's Casino welcomed customers back on February 17. The Audubon Zoo is open on weekends, although the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, which lost most of its fish after the storm knocked out power, won't reopen until summer.

    The National D-Day Museum reopened in December, and the New Orleans Museum of Art should open its doors again on March 3.

    The Cabildo, a historic government building and one of the Louisiana State Museum's five French Quarter properties, has reopened with limited hours. The Old U.S. Mint was damaged, and should be able to reopen in 2007. The other three properties -- the Presbytere, which was used as a courthouse until 1911, and the 1850 House and Madame John's Legacy, both historic homes -- were undamaged, but are closed because of staffing shortages.

    Finding workers also is frustrating restaurateurs. According to figures from the Louisiana Restaurant Association, only 1,300 of the 3,400 restaurants in the greater New Orleans area have reopened.

    Well-known French Quarter eateries like Galatoire's and Arnaud's are back in business, but Felix's Restaurant and Oyster Bar's French Quarter location is still being repaired. Owners hope to open the famed Garden District restaurant Commander's Palace in late spring or early summer.

    Still, Hood found plenty to eat during his recent visit.

    "Most all the restaurants that I'm used to were open, and we went to several of them and didn't have any trouble," he said.

    Hood's group booked rooms early at the Parc St. Charles hotel four blocks from the French Quarter.

    Of the hotel's 122 rooms, guests on the Federal Emergency Management Agency housing plan occupy 25 and the remaining 97 are fully booked for Mardi Gras, according to a hotel spokeswoman.

    About 23,000 of the downtown area's 28,000 hotel rooms are open, according to the convention and visitor's bureau. Hotels were about 95 percent occupied as of Wednesday.

    The city's hospitality industry will get another boost with the return of convention business, which brought in $2.47 billion in 2004. Three halls at the Morial Convention Center reopened on February 17. The center's larger events are set to resume in June and by November, the completely renovated center should be operating.

    Airlines are gradually adding flights to New Orleans as demand picks up. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is averaging 80 departures a day, nearly half the average number of daily flights pre-Katrina.

    Birdena Frye, 37, a clerk for the New York State Court System, is flying to New Orleans from New York City in late April. She and a group of friends rescheduled their canceled October trip to coincide with the French Quarter Festival.

    Frye thinks they'll go to a jazz club and enjoy the local cuisine in addition to checking out the festival. They may even take a tour of the devastated areas, such as Gray Line's three-hour Hurricane Katrina tour.

    "I'm not really sure at this time what to expect," Frye said. "I'm just trying to keep an open mind. I'm looking forward to going because I want to see for myself how things are."

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