Ten years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the city's tourism has not only rebounded. It's practically been reinvented.
New Orleans had just 3.7 million visitors in 2006, the first full year after 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 Aug. 29, 2005, flooding 80 percent 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 neighborhood, the new Crescent Park along the Mississippi River and a rebuilt historic market, St. Roch, that was destroyed by the flood. Bourbon Street is still packed with tourists, and live music once more spills out of seemingly every door on Frenchmen Street in the nearby Marigny neighborhood. 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, U.S. hospitality & leisure practice leader at accounting firm PwC, noted that 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," 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' tourism comeback, including new attractions and Katrina commemoration plans.
NEW ORLEANS TOURISM BY THE NUMBERS
The city's population is down 18 percent from 2004, from roughly 460,000 to 378,000. But its tourism statistics are almost as high — and in some cases stronger — than 10 years ago.
The city had 9.5 million visitors last year compared to 10.1 million in 2004, the year before Katrina, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The city now has nearly 39,000 hotel rooms, according to the visitors bureau, a few hundred more than it had in 2004 and 10,000 more than at the end of 2005.
Hotel revenue is up from nearly $1 billion in 2004 to $1.37 billion last year, according to STR, which compiles hotel industry data. Hotel occupancy is also up, STR said, from 63 percent for 2004 to 69 percent for 2014.
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 1,400 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 modernized 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 old-school 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' 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, modernized and succeeded," 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 U.S. in New Orleans and plans its first U.S. Moxy hotel there too.
Of course, New Orleans isn't without problems, including the highest murder rate of any big city in America. Tourists aren't usually victims of violent crime, but shootings and the city's reduced police force have made headlines. And while economic development has lured millennials and entrepreneurs, that's led to higher living costs that threaten the very mix of race, class and culture that makes the city so unique.
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 neighborhood'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 neighborhoods. And the Viking River Cruises company is opening its first U.S. offices in New Orleans in 2017 with two ships for Mississippi cruises.
The Aug. 29 anniversary will be marked with a day of service, a wreath-laying, a "Resilience Festival" and celebration of neighborhoods, along with a traditional "second line" brass band parade. Hundreds of other events, from burlesque shows to art exhibits, are also planned.