Jan 29, 201309:47 AM
Getting Around Greater New Orleans and Beyond
New Orleans' Tourism Roots
If New Orleans' tourist booms were a character in one of the many films being shot in our neighborhoods this year, they would simultaneously occupy the role of a scoundrel and a saint, feared, welcomed and loathed, often times concurrently by the same people. I recently talked with Dr. Bridget Bordelon, an assistant professor at the Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration at the University of New Orleans, to dig up the roots of this relationship and gain a better understanding of New Orleans’ evolution from a funky port city in the gulf to a national tourist mecca.
Tarani Duncan: Let’s start off by talking about how the city came to be so reliant on tourism.
Dr. Bridget Bordelon: In the early 1980s, New Orleans was an economically vibrant city. We had a strong port system and a heavy reliance on oil and gas. Our city’s residents prospered. We had a lot of money circulating in the local economy, and what that meant was that tourists were coming in as well. During the oil boom, we saw a lot of construction, revitalization and renovations both in commercial and residential areas. In 1984 the World’s Fair selected New Orleans as a host city and provided the opportunity for hotel development. We increased our hotel occupancy (our number of hotel rooms); I’ve read statistics where it increased anywhere from 50 percent during that time period. So, with occupancy up and economic affluence, everything looked like a pretty good picture.
Unfortunately, the oil bust happened, and the economy of New Orleans changed for the worse. With that, the landscape of tourism changed. We had this almost sinking ship because of the downturn of the economy. We had less tourists coming in, less money circulating, less regional tourism. Though the World’s Fair was not an economic success, it was really good for the image of New Orleans. After the World’s Fair, there was a positive image of potential for tourism in New Orleans.
The plan was to develop the convention center and that had started with the World’s Fair. We had this structure available, and in the mid-1980s, after the oil bust and the downturn of the economy, there were planners and marketing professionals who decided we really needed to think about getting the leisure tourists to come to New Orleans. A marketing committee was established, and they decided to think about really selling and communicating New Orleans’ leisure tourism.
The first big event to come in was 1988: the Republican National Convention. In the midst of our economic struggles, it put New Orleans back on the map, and from a tourism perspective allowed us to think about the convention center, leisure tourism and also developing the convention center in a way that was geared more toward business.
So in 1990, after the convention, the city was in the spotlight. We did really well for hosting. A really important event in the early '90s was the completion of phase two of the Convention Center. Having a large convention center that was more capable of accommodating big delegations, we were finally utilizing our hotel rooms, restaurants, cultural amenities, essentially all the infrastructure that make up the city’s modern tourism and hospitality industry. This set the stage for other sorts of attractions, too. The Aquarium of the Americas opened that year, more restaurants and fixed events like Mardi Gras became more attractive. That sets the stage for other mega-events to follow.
A lot of the times we talk about the love and hate relationship of tourism and residents. From a safety perspective, New Orleans is most successful in handling crowd control. We’re trying to demonstrate that to the rest of the country that we can handle the crowd. We know how to entertain people, and from a service perspective, we know how to exceed hospitality expectations and keep people safe.
From a residential perspective, we know there’s a lot of variation with that love/hate relationship in any tourist town with a big event. You’ll anecdotally hear about people’s frustrations over street closings, construction work, beautification efforts. Such as, yes, the Convention Center construction looks beautiful now, but why? You can say the same thing about any type beautification effort, but we are able to retain all of these improvements. Although it might have been intended for Super Gras it’s something that we can retain for our city, for us, for our image for the future of tourist development.
In terms of economic impact, what can New Orleans expect for Super Gras?
A few months after the event we do actual tabulations. So, the verdict’s still out. Our former chancellor Tim Ryan was in charge of projecting those numbers. You should be able to find projections online, but depending on the source they’re going to be conservative or overly inflated estimation. In the past I’ve seen ranges just for a typical Carnival season, I have seen ranges, and this is a big range, anywhere between $160 million all the way to $1 billion of those indirect and direct impact. Sure, there are inconveniences along the way, but in the long run, thinking of our infrastructure, Super Gras should go a long way.