The New Orleans tourism industry includes boutiques, swamp tour operators and the high-rise towers of international hotel chains. One thing uniting this vast and diverse economic sector these days, however, is concern about the future if current tourism trends for the city remain unchanged.

That is because New Orleans stands to lose 2 percent of its current visitor volume annually over the next few years, according to a study commissioned by the New Orleans Hospitality Industry Task Force. Such losses would come on the heels of the general chill in leisure and convention travel brought about by the nation’s economic downturn and the hammering New Orleans tourism in particular suffered from the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans attracted 10 million visitors in the year before Katrina, while in 2008 the tally was approximately 7.6 million. 

“Although the hospitality industry is rebuilding, it’s running considerably below pre-Katrina,” says Doug Thornton, co-chairman of the state-sponsored Task Force. “We need to be able to harness the power of this industry. We can get things done if we work hard, work smart and work together.”

The same Task Force study also outlined a master plan to reverse the somber trends it predicted, with recommendations aimed at building visitor levels to 13.7 million annually by 2018, in time for the city’s 300th anniversary. Such a turn-around would add some 33,000 local jobs, according to the Task Force’s consultants.

Some recommendations in the report are far-reaching, such as redeveloping the city’s riverfront with more visitor attractions. But one of the more immediate recommendations will be implemented this month with the merger of the city’s two most important tourism promotion groups, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.

Plans for just such a merger have been discussed for years, but economic woes have finally forced action. The new structure is intended to consolidate marketing messaging and streamline operations. Stephen Perry, the president and CEO of the Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, will lead the new organization.

“The strategic master plan is all about making New Orleans the most attractive destination in the nation for leisure trips, meetings, conventions, festivals and special events,” says Perry. “No city has the culture, appeal or visitor experience of New Orleans, so we must have the most comprehensive master plan and shrewd business model of any destination marketing organization in the country.”