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Good Times for New Orleans Tourism

Four years after being knocked down by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, New Orleans is regaining its footing with tourists.

Last year, 7.6 million visited, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau says, up from 3.7 million in 2006 and 7.1 million in 2007. Before Katrina, in 2004, a record 10.1 million visitors showed up. This year looks good: Mardi Gras attendance reached pre-Katrina levels of about 1 million, the visitors bureau says.

July hotel occupancy in the city's business district and tourist areas was 65.7%, up 7.7% from last July, Smith Travel Research reports. "That's a great number," says Jan Freitag, a Smith vice president. "Occupancy over 60% is definitely healthy in today's economy."

Among the USA's top 25 markets, only New Orleans reported increases in occupancy in July. Most hotels have reopened. (Renovation of the 1,200-room Hyatt is stalled because of financing problems, the visitors bureau says.)

Before Katrina, the city had 130 hotels with 25,000 rooms, Freitag says. Now it has 119 with 22,300 rooms, including just-reopened, 504-room The Roosevelt (a Fairmont when Katrina hit). The historic Roosevelt, dating to 1923, is home of the Sazerac Bar.

"The traveler feels like it's rebuilt and safe and good to go back" to New Orleans, says Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group, a travel discounter. "While there are some deals, (hotel rates are) holding up well compared with other destination cities." Hotwire.com has been selling rooms in luxury hotels for $70. The Roosevelt, all restored elegance, currently offers rates from $119.

Legendary dining spots including Brennan's are open again. The visitors bureau says the city has more than 1,000 eateries, 200 more than when Katrina hit. "The tourism industry is a bright spot," says Kelly Schulz, visitors bureau vice president of communications.

Sugary beignets at famous Café Du Monde are cheap ($2 for three). Those who recall the French Quarter as litter-strewn will be pleased that "it's cleaner than it's ever been," she says. That's thanks to sweepers and lemon-scented liquid now used to scour it.

Though conventions have suffered a bit from the economy and the "AIG effect" - discouraging firms from holding gatherings in party spots - Schulz says some groups counter that by spending some time helping rebuild neighborhoods (New Orleans Marriotts, for instance, offer volunteerism packages).

"We don't want to keep reminding (tourists) of Katrina," Schulz says. "But when you almost lost something, sometimes it makes you appreciate it more."

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