Cheap gas, hopes for good weather and New Orleans' reputation as a hot destination could pave the way for a big Carnival season, tourism industry officials say.
New Orleans metro area hotels are mostly hovering between 90 percent and 95 percent booked with one month left to go before Mardi Gras, and many properties expect to sell out for Mardi Gras weekend, said Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association. "We're going to have an even better year this year," Early said.
Gas prices nationally averaged $2.05 on Tuesday, down from $3.28 the same day last year. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy added 3 million jobs last year, the most since 1999, and the unemployment rate declined to 5.6 percent in December, the lowest in six years.
Those factors could weigh in to whether visitors regionally and nationally decide to book the remaining available rooms in the city.
The Mardi Gras weekend is lining up with two other holidays, which could boost the number of visitors, observers say. Valentine's Day falls on Saturday, Feb. 14.
And Lundi Gras is the same day as the federally observed Washington's Birthday (also known as Presidents Day), which could persuade more visitors as a chance to stretch their paid vacation days.
Early said she expects the results from a survey of hotels to be ready in another week. The greater New Orleans metro area has about 38,000 hotel rooms -- 22,000 of which are within one mile of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
In recent years, about 1 million people have flocked to New Orleans each year for parades and parties on Mardi Gras. Past studies have pinned the economic impact of Mardi Gras at about $144 million in direct benefits and as much as $340 million including indirect benefits.
Lauren Cason, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau's director of communications, marketing and governmental affairs, said it's difficult to get a precise count of visitors during Mardi Gras. But overall, officials are anticipating reaching one million visitors again this year. Historically, the booking rate for hotel rooms has been 95 percent.
Cason said convention and tourism officials are curious to see whether the Presidents Day holiday gives an added boost to an already popular weekend.
The city is expecting 120,000 visitors for meetings and conventions in the first quarter of 2015, up from 90,000 in the fourth quarter of 2014. Unique events like the recent 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, the debut of the Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana in April and NOLA Navy Week are drawing tourists in addition to the regular Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest events.
Many observers point to the favorable news coverage the city is receiving nationally and internationally for travel, including the New York Times placing the city 23rd on a list of 52 places around the world to visit in 2015.
As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina comes in August, Cason said, this year will be a chance "to really show the world how great the city is doing."