Whether or not you care about the big game on Sunday, if you have plans to visit New Orleans any time in the near future, you're a winner of Super Bowl XLVII. When the final seconds tick away on the scoreboard, New Orleanians and the some 10 million visitors likely to travel to the Big Easy this year will be left with a new-and-improved mecca on the Mississippi.
Local officials say the process of putting its game face on for the Super Bowl helped push the memories of Katrina damage even deeper into the history vaults.
"This is probably the greatest example I can give you of resiliency. Here we are, seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the NFL has awarded us the biggest party and biggest celebration that they have," said Mark Romig, president and CEO of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation.
The 'new' New Orleans
The tourism marketing organization says the game inspired $1.3 billion in infrastructure improvements, including upgrades to downtown hotels, a total makeover at the airport, enhancements at the Superdome and repairs to area highways, streets, sidewalks and the streetcar line. Also funded were five new playgrounds that will be completed as part of the "Super Saturday of Service" the day before the Ravens and 49ers compete for the Lombardi trophy.
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Romig says the city used Super Bowl XLVII as the goalpost, timing-wise, for countless projects that have brought the city to a new level of post-Katrina recovery.
The Louis Armstrong International Airport, many visitors' first and last impression of the city, has been noticeably lacking in authentic New Orleans food and flair. With the NFL and its entourage heading to the Crescent City, $356 million was dedicated to revamping the amenities and the aesthetics of the terminal buildings. Among the improvements that took flight: new restaurants, signage and runway approach lights.
While the city surpassed pre-Katrina visitor spending in 2011 -- with $5.47 billion spent that year -- the actual visitor count has yet to rise above the bar of 10.4 million visitors, the number of arrivals in 2004. Romig says he doesn't like to speculate, but he's optimistic about 2013 being a record-breaker, especially with this three-week party kicking off the year.
"The Super Bowl footprint is very large. Then you have the added impact of Mardi Gras, which brings in several hundreds of millions of dollars on its own. So when you combine the two, it's a wonderful, positive, double whammy for the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana and the region," he said. His organization puts the economic impact for the three weeks of what's been dubbed "Super Gras" at approximately $730 million.
Barry Kern, president of Mardi Gras World and co-chair of the Super Bowl Hospitality Committee, says the overhaul is "just another building block to New Orleans being rebuilt and becoming a city of the 21st century where everybody would want to be."
Even though their team isn't marching into the Superdome on Sunday, many Saints fans are still riding the high of winning the Super Bowl in 2010. Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association, is glad to see football filling the city's 37,000 hotel rooms, but she's even more emotional about what the sport has meant to her city, calling the Saints "the true catalyst to the recovery of New Orleans."
It has been two years, but the euphoria still lingers. Having the Super Bowl at the Superdome calls to mind how the Saints' victory helped "wash away whatever negative emotions people were holding onto from the impact of Katrina and the levee breaks," says Early.
She says fans still looking for a room for the weekend should keep checking with their desired hotel for cancellations. She also recommends www.bbnola.com, where several hundred bed and breakfast listings can be found.
Hosting this game ties New Orleans with Miami for the city that has been home to the most Super Bowls; the last time was in 2002. Kern says he's certain that if Hurricane Katrina hadn't struck, New Orleans would be alone in the top spot.
"Our hospitality is the biggest plus. I guarantee, you come to New Orleans and you're going to be treated better than you'll be treated anywhere else that you're ever going to go for a Super Bowl," says Kern, whose Mardi Gras World is a beehive of activity now, as workers put the finishing touches on hundreds of floats soon to be parading through the city streets.
Mardi Gras day is February 12. The city spread out its annual Carnival celebration this year, altering the parade schedule to allow for a pause on the days immediately surrounding Super Bowl Sunday.
If Baltimore and San Francisco fans get a taste of the city and hate the thought of leaving, Romig and other city leaders are urging them to stay for a parade or two. Kern is hoping that exposing the sports crowd to the joys of Carnival and Mardi Gras will help communicate the family-friendly reality of the event.
Two smiling tourists from New York are proof that seeing is believing. "Before coming here all we heard about was drunk people in the streets, but everyone's been friendly and not so crazy," said Yolanda Huang. Her friend Jeanne Hsu agreed, adding, "It's really easy to get around. I feel very safe and it's cleaner than what I expected."
Another group of friends from Sao Paulo, Brazil, was enjoying an early Mardi Gras parade on Friday afternoon, dancing along with the Krewe of Cork.
"In Brazil, we play soccer. We don't know so much about the American football," said one of them, with a smile. "But we are here for the Mardi Gras and the vacation."
Even before the kickoff for Super Bowl XLVII, city officials are planning their next mission. Kern has no doubt the Super Bowl will make a return trip fairly soon. And the tourism marketing corporation is strategizing for 2018. That's when New Orleans will turn 300 years old, or if you start over and count time forward from the storm -- as so many in this region were forced to do -- it will be in its 13th year of renewal.
So who's going to win on Sunday? According to Romig, "In the long term, the citizens of the area are the biggest winners because they're going to benefit from all these great things that have happened in the city."
3 ways to enjoy the Big Easy on a budget
Ride a streetcar: For a mere $1.25, there are several options. The St. Charles line is one of the most popular, and this time of year, visitors will get to see trees and street signs draped in Carnival beads. Hop on where St. Charles hits Canal for a rewarding low-cost tour. Take the free ferry: The Algiers Ferry leaves every 30 minutes from the dock right next to the aquarium to cross the Mississippi. Get off at Algiers Point and walk around, or simply ride across and back while enjoying the view. Fans in town this week should go at dusk for the special treat of seeing St. Louis Cathedral lit up by the media crews. Browse the art co-op: From Jackson Square, follow the sidewalk behind Cafe du Monde (yes, the powdered sugar-covered treats are a must!) and just before you reach the colorful shopping bazaar that is the French Market, you'll discover the Dutch Alley Artist's Co-op. Browsing is free, but you're likely to find a unique souvenir that you can't live without -- and you might even meet the person who created it.