Tourism officials were smiling this week as new reports detailed the growing number of visitors attracted to Metro New Orleans in 2012 and the number of passengers who passed through Louis Armstrong International Airport.
Nine million visitors — spending an incredible $6 billion — came to Metro New Orleans in 2012, the most since 2004. It should be remembered that New Orleans back then was celebrating a record year that saw 10.4 million visitors come here. There was tremendous optimism until late August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina and poorly-constructed levees shattered everything.
“Those of us who remember what it was like when the city and surrounding areas were 80-percent underwater can only marvel at what we have accomplished in the last eight years,” says Mark Romig, President and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. “Without bragging on ourselves, the tourism industry can certainly be proud that we have come from near obliteration to restore tourism as the driving force in our economy. We are 74,000 strong today and growing every day.”
Equally encouraging were the numbers from Armstrong International that recorded 8.6 million passengers in 2012, the best year the airport has had since 2005. What rankles airport officials is that they have never hit the 10 million passenger mark, although they came close in 2000. Then came 9/11 and a slowdown in U.S. travel. The airport was just recovering from that when Hurricane Katrina came calling. But, under Director of Aviation Iftikhar Ahmad, the airport has continued to gain ground every year. Ahmad thinks that on the present track, the airport will at last surpass 10 million passengers around 2016 or ’17.
Romig notes that the goal of the tourism industry is 13 million visitors to the region by 2018, the year that New Orleans will celebrate the 300th anniversary of Bienville’s founding of New Orleans.
But Mayor Mitch Landrieu has his own thoughts about the growth of tourism. He hinted again this week, for the fourth or fifth time, that he is thinking about building a new airport – one that will have a much larger capacity than the existing airport and longer runways capable of handling international flights.
Ahmad says the price tag for that kind of new airport will run around $1 billion or more. It would certainly be one of the largest construction projects in Louisiana history, much larger than the Louisiana Superdome. Where in the world is Mayor Landrieu going to get $1 billion for a new airport? He isn’t saying but those of us who have known Mitch Landrieu since he was 10 years old will tell you that, unlike Ray Nagin, Landrieu doesn’t say it unless he’s figured out a way to do it.
Meanwhile, there is another interesting piece being filled into the tourism puzzle. The U.S. Department of Labor has announced a $3 million grant to the Elaine Nunez Community College in St. Bernard Parish to fund, among other things, the start of a tourism curriculum to prepare Nunez students for careers in the tourism industry.
Nunez will join Delgado Community College and the UNO School of Tourism in offering programs to prepare locals for careers in hospitality. “We find a tremendous amount of interest in our student body in tourism careers,” says Chris LaGarde, a member of the Nunez administrative team. “Almost all of us know friends and relatives who have found meaningful careers in tourism. So, it’s not surprising that students want to develop skills that will make them attractive to managers in the hospitality industry.”
Bill Langkopp, Executive Director of the Louisiana Hotel Association, has been watching growth in tourism for more than 50 years and can remember a pre-Superdome time when New Orleans had fewer than 6,000 first-class hotel rooms and there were few decent hotel accommodations outside the city. “We all worry about whether there’ll be a big storm in the Gulf around late August,” says Langkopp. “So there is certain unpredictability about what the future might hold. But we now have 38,000 hotel rooms in the region and 74,000 tourism-related jobs in our economy. I am one of those who feel that come 2018, we’ll be talking about 100,000 tourism-related jobs in our economy.”
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and council candidate Dana Kaplan.