Tourism’s Glorious Return to New Orleans and Biloxi

Posted on: May 24 2011 | Posted in: Latest News
A refreshing and funny look at New Orleans Post- Katrina
May. 24 2011
By LARRY OLMSTED

In the French Quarter of New Orleans, everyday is a celebration, whether there is a wedding, funeral or nothing at all

It has been nearly 6 years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and the good news is that not only is tourism back and thriving in these locales, it is better than ever.

I had been to both places pre-Katrina, and have made four trips to the region in the past year, twice to New Orleans, and twice to the Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, especially Gulfport, Biloxi and Ocean Springs. Because of the heavy New Orleans media coverage, many people in other parts of the country did not realize that these beachfront towns were even harder hit, with their strip of oceanfront casinos resorts left looking as if they had been bombed.

In both places, signs of the storm can still be found, and I do not in any way want to downplay the trauma to residents, past and current. But both places have a tourism based economy, need tourists, and I am describing the post-Katrina revival solely as it applies to visitors, who may be stunned by the current breadth of the lodging, dining and activity offerings.

Mississippi’s Gulf Coast is America’s third largest casino gaming destination, with 14 casino hotels, including all the major industry players, like Hard Rock and Harrah’s (Grand Casino), while MGM Mirage Resorts’ Beau Rivage in Biloxi is the “Bellagio of the East.” All of these feel essentially brand new, with rooms that are in most cases superior to ones you would find in Las Vegas, and even independent casino properties like the Island View boast exceptional quality. The latest piece of the revived casino puzzle here is the recent $9 million renovation of the IP Casino.

Besides gambling, there is a ton of golf here, with nearly every casino owning a course and many independent courses as well, 32 in all, many offering stay and play packages. Last year the Champions (formerly Senior) Tour added an annual tournament at the Fallen Oak golf course here, the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic. The 26 miles of sugary white beaches lining Biloxi and Gulfport have been greatly widened since the storm and is the main natural attraction here. Independent restaurants are thriving, with landmark Mary Mahoney’s, where President Bush has eaten, which was almost totally submerged by Katrina, rolling out its New Orleans-style signature dishes, while The Shed, a regional barbecue chain that began in Ocean Springs and stars on the current food television show Best in Smoke, continues to expand and open new outlets. According to Delta Vacations, flight and hotel packages to the region are up as much as 53% in the past year, as visitors discover that virtually everything here is new or improved, with great value propositions.

In 2010 visitation to New Orleans broke the 8 million mark for the first time since Katrina, and the 8.3 million tourists spent $5.3 billion, the most in the city’s history. The trend shows no sign of slowing in 2011, and a million people just visited for Mardi Gras. A city legendary for its cuisine, New Orleans now has more than 300 more restaurants than there were before Katrina, with new ones opening monthly, like Heritage Grill for the Brennan Restaurant Group which opened last month and Manning’s, by legendary Saints Quarterback Archie Manning, opening this fall. Virtually every landmark eatery, from Commander’s Palace to Emeril’s to Galatoire’s is back, along with famously good hole in the walls like Willie Mae’s Scotch House and Johnny’s Po Boys. All the main tourist neighborhoods, including the French Quarter, Garden and Warehouse Districts, are fully revitalized, the Superdome just completed a $750 million facelift, with a new Festival Plaza pedestrian mall adjacent to it, and the very impressive National WWII Museum keeps expanding by leaps and bounds (if you have not been it is a must, but an emotional experience). Lodging is keeping pace with dining, and there are also more hotels than there were before the storm, while classics like the Ritz Carlton and Roosevelt (now a Waldorf Astoria) have undergone massive facelifts. The Hyatt Regency, shuttered since Katrina, reopened just this past week after a $275 million redesign.

Besides food and jazz, what sets New Orleans apart is its unmatched calendar of festivals virtually non-stop, and I just visited at the tail end of Jazz Fest, which is second only to Mardi Gars in scope, and growing. Next week is the New Orleans Food & Wine Experience, a uniquely intimate event, April saw the French Quarter Festival, which locals describe as what Mardi Gras used to be, June’s Vieux To Do combines zydeco, seafood and creole tomato festivals, September brings the New Orleans Seafood Festival, October the New Orleans Film Festival and the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival, which I attended last year, and so on and so on. It is easier to find a weekend without something going on than one with a big event, so visit any time of year. The CVB has a very good online calendar of events.

I cannot recommend New Orleans enthusiastically enough. Besides its excellent food, unique attractions and unmatched joie de vivre, it is perhaps the best value of any major tourist city in the nation, with lodging, food and especially drink all for far less than you might expect. Tabs at the very best restaurants here equal merely average places in New York, while hotel rooms are much less. The visitors board rightly touts it as “A European city on a po boy budget.” New Orleans has many nicknames, most notable The Big Easy and The Crescent City, but it think the most fitting is The City that Care Forgot.

NOTE: The Big Uneasy, a new documentary about New Orleans, Katrina, the flooding, and the Army Corps of Engineers, just premiered in NY and LA and wil be shown in about 40 locations across the nation.