Why New Orleans Tourism Is Soaring 10 Years After Katrina

A vigorous recovery, driven first by empathy and now by enthusiasm

As the world's media trains its lens on New Orleans for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina tomorrow, stories have focused both on the tragedy and on the city's comeback. On the latter score, the news is mostly good: According to the Data Center, jobs are up 5 percent over 2008 levels, the entrepreneurship rate is 64 percent higher than the national average, and even "passenger enplanements" at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport have surpassed pre-Katrina levels.

But perhaps the best news comes from the travel and tourism industry. New Orleans drew 9.5 million people last year—compared with a low of 3.7 million visitors in 2006—and they spent a collective $6.8 billion. To keep the tourists coming, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation launched a campaign in April called "Follow Your NOLA," a TV and social-media effort built around three videos (which you can watch at the bottom of this story) showing visitors discovering the city's many attractions. The campaign "is going very well," said NOTMC's president Mark Romig. "We're well into 10 million engagements of the video content."

But the comeback of New Orleans' tourism also raises a delicate question: Notwithstanding the loss of life and property, is it possible that Hurricane Katrina actually resulted in something beneficial?

"I think so," said Kristian Sonnier, director of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. It's a qualified yes, of course. Nobody, least of all Sonnier, is glossing over the loss of life or the $151 billion in property damage. But the CVB director points to numerous undeniable improvements that have come about in the wake of the water receding—ones that might not have taken hold if the storm hadn't come.

For one thing, while pre-Katrina tourists tended to skew toward the Mardi Gras crowd who hit the bars on Bourbon Street, today's visitors are coming for more than just the French Quarter. They're venturing farther out and spending more money than their predecessors.

"The profile of the visitor has changed," Sonnier said. "The visitors we see now are really interested in culture and history." More of today's tourists, he explained, come to town for a "deeper experience," exploring up-and-coming neighborhoods, artistic and architectural attractions, and not just "parachuting in, doing stuff on Bourbon Street and going home," as Sonnier put it.

Michael Valentino, who operates five hotels and a sightseeing bus line in the city, says he's seen "steady growth for the past five years" in his numerous businesses, which include the old Basin St. Station. Valentino said the extensive media coverage of Katrina did have one positive effect. "The storm brought the attention of the world to New Orleans," he said. "First, it was out of empathy, then out of curiosity and then out of discovery. The world basically said, 'We have to visit there someday.""

Romig added that Katrina, in addition to mauling the city, also brought about a chance to improve it. "The storm came, and it was devastating—we lost 1,800 citizens and 80 percent of the city was flooded," he said. "But as we started to rebuild, it gave us an opportunity to rebuild the city we wanted it to be, a cradle of culture." Indeed, the "Follow Your NOLA" campaign, produced with help of agency 360i, shows not only the usual Mardi Gras dancing and smoky jazz bars but the antebellum architecture and performing arts, too. (NOTMC has also partnered with a variety of social-media influencers to disseminate the messaging.)

In some ways, New Orleans' post-Katrina tourism renaissance is being driven as much by people from across the street as it is by those from across the country. "Locals have rediscovered the city themselves and have a greater recognition of how unique we are," Valentino said. "The storm forced us into a hard look at who we are, and we've come out of it with a clearer understanding, a new awareness."

You don't have to tell that to Gano Lemoine. Now a Portland, Ore., attorney, Lemoine lived in pre-Katrina New Orleans for 16 years and is heartened by the city's resurgence as a destination.

"I've never seen it so vibrant and on the move with new businesses," he said. "There has been an influx of new people, including many young people and young entrepreneurs, injecting fresh energy into the city and its business community."

Unfortunately, Lemoine doesn't visit New Orleans as often as he'd like to. In the days after Katrina, he tuned into CNN and watched as the house he renovated—the one he had his wedding reception in—burned to the ground, set on fire by looters. "I don't go back more often because it's a whipsaw of great and terrible memories," he said.

Those memories will always be part of New Orleans, but so, fortunately, is the city that ranked No. 2 on Travel + Leisure's 2015 Best Cities in America list (behind Charleston, South Carolina.) "The health of tourism is back, and it's surpassed where it was," Sonnier said. "We've gained ground."