Local travel agent Juli McInnis tells a story of how one of her clients, the owner of an insurance agency, dealt with flagging morale at his company, post-Katrina. Early this year he arranged a trip to New York City for his several-member staff in an effort to reinvigorate and bolster them for the continuing onslaught of claims. The group wined, dined and generally whooped it up, and they came back in great spirits, McInnis says.
An extravagant gift?
Maybe. But as the client reasoned: “It beats paying to send them to a psychiatrist!”
A lot of locals can relate.
Life in New Orleans during this era of recovery and rebuilding carries its own special brand of stress. While most people rise to the challenges, hardly anyone is immune to the psychological pressures inherent in coping with life in their vastly altered city. What that means for many is, at some point, they need a vacation.
Though travel agents around the city say the wallop of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent floods took a toll on their business, the decline is somewhat offset by locals’ growing need to get a glimpse of greener pastures.
“People are saying, ‘I don’t care where I go, I just need some pampering. Just get me out of here for a while!’ ” says McInnis, who manages USA Travel Agency in New Orleans.
She says trips average fewer than four or five days, “just long enough to recharge their batteries.”
Favored destinations, she says, include Walt Disney World, for families, and Mexico (excluding the previously popular Cancun, where hotels and other establishments slapped by Hurricane Wilma are still being rebuilt). Europe remains appealing for those looking for both a change of scene and a change of culture, she says.
Also popular with locals looking for a diversion are shopping trips, McInnis says. “We’ve had people who carried empty suitcases and went off to Atlanta or New York to fill them up.”
Kathy Galliand, an agent with Designer Travel in Metairie, says she, too, has heard from a lot of people who feel they simply must have a break.
“Everybody wants to go somewhere where it’s lovely — somewhere that’s not cluttered and doesn’t have debris,” she says. “We tell people that, periodically, they need to get out of town for their mental health.”
Like other agents, she says a lot of her clients have leaned toward Disney World. She speculates that the draw is not simply that theme parks are fun.
“When the whole rest of the world is too realistic, you can go there and play fantasy,” she says.
Some people who have longstanding relationships with local travel agents may find they have to turn elsewhere for advice and assistance the next time they get the travel itch. That’s because the late-August flooding affected travel agencies just as it did everyone else.
“A problem is that a lot of people in the travel business lost their homes,” says Joyce Hadley, owner of Leisure Travel of New Orleans, who says two of her agency’s employees are out of commission because their homes were flooded.
“A lot of agencies have temporarily closed because the owners are working on their homes or they’re relocating,” she says.
Hadley is continuing to serve former and new clients with arrangements for both quick trips and longer stays. Honeymoons in Europe remain popular, she says. And many people still feel the pull of the beach, whether it’s an undamaged area of the Florida coast or the sands of Mexico. While Cancun is largely off-limits, Hadley says an area to the south called Costa Maya is growing more popular.
Trips to any of these destinations may require a little more planning than some travelers are used to because of another hindrance of the times: a shortage of airline flights.
“It’s hard to get space unless you’re booked well in advance,” Hadley says. That situation is improving, though not as fast as some would like.
Officials at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport say a number of airlines are expanding their local schedules, including the recent addition of nonstop service to New York LaGuardia by American Airlines. That airline is slated to add more flights in April, resuming mainline jet service to St. Louis and adding three round trips to Dallas/Fort Worth and one more round trip each to Chicago and Miami.
By early April, local service will be available to 28 cities, with 91 flights vs. the 42 airports served through 166 flights before Katrina, according to airport officials.
Yearning to cruise
The slowly improving air service in and out of New Orleans probably would be less of an issue for the leisure travel market were it not for the glaring absence of one of the area’s most popular vacation options: cruises.
The passenger cruise business was one of the city’s brightest growth spots before Aug. 29, 2005. It was also a popular option for locals looking to get away. They could easily drive or take a taxi to the dock at the Port of New Orleans and hop aboard a ship. And they could select from a wide range of Caribbean, Atlantic and Mexican destinations.
But Katrina knocked the wind out of those sails, and for months after the storm the only cruise ship seen in the port was the one that housed first-responders and city employees who had lost their homes to the flood.
The word from the cruise industry is that most of the companies operating from New Orleans before the storm intend to return as soon as possible, though the first cruises probably won’t sail before fall. Carnival Cruise Lines, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International all have said they will resume some of their operations here later this year (see sidebar). Until then, locals looking to take a cruise will have to add in travel time to another cruise departure city, ranging from Mobile, Ala., to Miami.
For Delta Queen Steamboat Co., the resumption of its multinight cruise schedule out of New Orleans will take longer. The company recently announced it has suspended local operations of its three river cruise vessels until 2007. Spokeswoman Lucette Brehm says, though, that Delta Queen is committed to returning all three boats to New Orleans.
Robert Jumonville, who heads the cruise and tourism division of the Port of New Orleans, says the speed with which the Downtown and riverfront areas and the French Quarter become “visitor-friendly” will probably determine how fast the various cruise companies restore full service.
Meanwhile, he says construction of a new cruise terminal at Erato Street, initially scheduled for completion in December 2005, is now several months behind but still moving. The $37 million project will add a 90,000-square-foot terminal and a 1,000-space parking garage.
Jumonville says the planned conversion of the Poland Avenue Wharf from a cargo facility into a cruise terminal also suffered a setback and has been hampered by a local construction labor shortage. But he says the project remains on tap.
“Although the short-term effect [of the hurricane] will be substantial, we believe the cruise business in New Orleans will return to its pre-Katrina levels, and the anticipated expansion will not be affected,” he says.
That’s welcome news for Chuck Brown, owner of the Cruise & Vacation Shoppe in Metairie. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, his agency had to cancel roughly $250,000 worth of business it had booked for clients. Like a lot of other local agents, Brown has spent a great deal of time since the storm getting refunds for clients.
He says, though, that business has picked up as more and more local people feel the need to take a break. “There are a lot of people around here who just need to get away.”