A year after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans hotels that remained open were packed with Federal Emergency Management Agency workers.
Now, almost a decade later, the hotel industry is thriving, with its 37,100 rooms packed with tourists from all over the United States and abroad.
Robust hotel occupancy is one indication that tourism here, which has steadily grown since the precipitous drop right after the hurricane, is not only back, but approaching record levels.
“It’s the fascination of being in New Orleans, to see how New Orleans is growing after Katrina,” said Glenn Johnson, manager on duty at the Best Western Plus French Quarter Landmark Hotel. “They want to see how New Orleans came back.”
In 2006, in a city still staggered by the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, the city recorded 3.7 million visitors, down from the 2004 peak of 10.1 million. Last year, the number was 9.28 million — the second highest in city history, with the highest rate of spending ever — $6.47 billion, according to a study released by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center.
Although preliminary data is not available for 2014, it is apparent to many in New Orleans, where streets in the French Quarter are crowded and long lines often snake down sidewalks outside popular restaurants, that tourism here is growing.
“The tourism numbers give every indication that 2014 will be a strong year,” said Lauren Cason, director of marketing, communications and governmental affairs for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Convention bookings are good with seven months still remaining in the year to book short-term meetings.”
That is obviously part of the draw.
“There were a lot of people who wondered why we should even bother and why New Orleans was important. We felt like despite those questions, we had to come back,” said Brett Crawford, a professional tour guide who drives horse carriages around the French Quarter. “New Orleans is one of those places that gets under your skin.”
After the storm devastated the tourism business, the national economic downfall in 2008 and the B.P. oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 both hurt its recovery.
But as the good times started to roll again, empty storefronts became new businesses. Nikki Ritzenthaler, general manager for the French Quarter Guest Houses, witnessed the transformation of Frenchmen Street as it filled with new bars, clubs and restaurants.
“It’s what we call the new Bourbon Street,” Ms. Ritzenthaler said. “When I moved here, it was more of a hidden treasure place that mostly locals knew about. At this point, four years later, is a full-blown tourist attraction.”
Hosting the Super Bowl in 2013 also helped improve tourism in the city.
“For vendor and street artists, the Super Bowl didn’t do much. But I think in the long run it helped because the city was advertised through the Super Bowl,” said Christine Roy, who works as a street artist and often showcases her paintings at Jackson Square in the French Quarter.
“Since 2009, this is the first time I’m doing pretty good without starving too much,” she said with a laugh.
Jacques Roman V, whose family owns Café Du Monde in the French Quarter, which is known for its beignets, never doubted New Orleans would come back.
The restaurant closed for a couple of months immediately after the storm, but through the years, he has seen more people visiting New Orleans to embark on cruise ships, participate in conventions or just discover what the city is all about.
Of the 9.28 million visitors who came to New Orleans, 13 percent went to conventions, trade shows or corporate meetings, and 9.8 percent came to the city for general business. More than 40 percent of the tourists came to the city for the first time.
“I’m impressed by how fast it came back and how well it came back,” Mr. Roman said. “It did have a unifying effect. Everybody in the city shared the same experience. Everybody has something in common.”
The talk about recovery, he joked, was “the only time that food ever took a second place in the conversation.”
Across the street from Café Du Monde, Esther Walters, a waitress at River’s Edge Restaurant since 2004, said there is still room for full recovery.
“It took, I’d say, maybe a couple of years to pick up, but it’s still not exactly what it was before the hurricane,” said Ms. Walters, who herself was part of the immediate recovery.
“I was born and raised here and I lost everything in the storm,” she said. “I was gone two months and I came back. I couldn’t stay away.”