Is New Orleans Ready for Tourists?

The Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans's French Quarter.
The Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans's French Quarter.
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

On a recent January Thursday night at the Gumbo Shop, a stalwart dispenser of Creole comfort food in the French Quarter, the line for a table crossed an important threshold: It went out the front door.

"I haven't seen that before," said Jennifer, a harried waitress eyeing a queue that spilled onto the sidewalk of St. Peter Street for one of the first times since the restaurant reopened in early December. Some of those waiting were obviously college students. (Tulane and Loyola universities had just resumed classes, and the restaurant's $6.95 bowl of gumbo has long drawn the kind of hungry twentysomethings who were noisily getting reacquainted by the hostess stand.) Others seemed like local people or relief workers, and a few -- including one couple flipping through a Zagat guide -- were obviously tourists. "Everyone's talking about how busy it's been getting," Jennifer said.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away on Iberville Street, another Vieux Carre fixture, the Acme Oyster House, remained empty behind darkened windows and a temporary stretch of chain-link fence. Antoine's, the legendary eatery on Rue Saint Louis, was open, but patrons had to step around a stretch of broken sidewalk and piles of construction material. Taped prominently by the door was a health department certificate: "Approved for Re-opening Following Hurricane Katrina."

By 10 p.m. on Bourbon Street proper, the crowd, many with bottles of beer or souvenir cocktail cups, had overflowed the sidewalk and filled the center of the sticky street. Strip club barkers tirelessly cajoled patrons -- from bachelor party louts to suburban couples -- into showrooms where dancers who may or may not have been actual females showed off assets that may or may not have been the ones they were born with. Walk-up margarita bars and open-walled rock clubs lobbed competing bass lines and disco lights at each other across streets filled with go-cup gawkers.

"I'd say it's about 75 percent," said Ricky Craig, surveying the scrum of partyers gathered in front of Razzoo's. A group of bead throwers teased them from a balcony above. A National Guard Hummer, painted in desert camo, was parked at the curb. Craig is an engineer from outside of Houston and a French Quarter veteran. This was his first visit since Katrina. "It's not nearly as crazy as it can be, but it's better than I expected."

Five months after Katrina and four weeks before Mardi Gras -- just as many potential visitors are looking for the right time to come pump some sympathy dollars into a beleaguered economy -- tourism in New Orleans is as mixed as a pot of gumbo: In the French Quarter, where even an off-speed party is more Bacchanalia than most cities pull off on a good New Year's Eve, it's almost possible to believe that little has changed. Along St. Charles and around the Garden District, many a house is alive with lighted porches and clean cars in the driveway. On Magazine Street, most of the boutiques are open, and at such venerable music clubs as Tipitina's and Snug Harbor the stages are filled nightly. And all over the tourist districts, a growing list of restaurants and bars are back to slinging etouffee and Sazeracs.

In short, if you're a New Orleans veteran, you'll find many of your old haunts up and running. If you're a first-timer who's been kicking yourself for never making the scene before everything changed last August, you can come now for a pretty good idea of what all the fun was about.

But wander more than a few blocks from the high ground, and the good timing can look like a Mardi Gras mask, a fixed reveler's grin over a bleak and broken soul.

Business as Usual?

As more flights bring more visitors, finding a room can be challenge, particularly on weekends. Hotels are opening every week, but most places are understaffed and others remain booked with relief workers or employees with nowhere else to live. All are struggling with the challenge of doing business in a warped economy. (The International House, a trendy and popular boutique hotel in the central business district, was blocked from opening 40 additional rooms for two weeks because the cleaners misplaced the drapes.)

To help, the city's tourism Web site maintains an updated list of functioning hotels (see Details below). Among them is the Royal Sonesta, a 500-room behemoth in the heart of Bourbon Street's naughty stretch. The hotel is busy and back to normal, except for the task force of police and state patrol officers using the ballroom as a headquarters and the frozen-in-time August 2005 issue of Where magazine on a bedside table.

"I'm definitely seeing more pure tourists now," said Mike Howells, a tarot card reader set up across the street from the hotel. Up the block, a group of Baptist missionaries handed out religious fliers under a sign reading "Free Coffee." Next to them, a woman in a bikini top in the door of Larry Flynt's Barely Legal club held a sign reading "Free Porn." Howells has worked the fortune-telling trade around the Quarter for more than 40 years. He never evacuated from Katrina and has been watching the slow return of life since the waters began to recede.

"I watched this city die," he said. "Before it was all New Orleans police, National Guard and insurance adjusters. Now there are more tourists and more young people. It's much closer to normal."

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