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Friday, September 2, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Katrina Q&A: cancellation policies, refunds and more

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — It may seem insensitive to think about vacation plans in the wake of the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina. But looked at another way, tourists are the economic lifeblood of many of the Gulf Coast communities that have been so cruelly inundated by water and whipped by winds.

Tourism is the top, or one of the top, industries in New Orleans, depending on how you calculate. Domestic visitors spent more than $4.4 billion in Orleans Parish last year, according to a study by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA). In neighboring Jefferson Parish, where the New Orleans airport is located, U.S. tourists brought in another $945 million. And that's not even counting foreign tourists. Last year, 244,000 of them visited New Orleans — an increase of 23 percent over the previous year, said Cathy Keefe of TIA. About 73,000 locals earned their living through tourism last year, the state-sponsored study showed.

The Gulf Coast communities soon will begin to struggle to their feet. Tourism will eventually be a tool that will help them stand. Until that day comes, here are answers to the questions we've been hearing.

Q: I was planning to visit New Orleans this fall. How soon will the city be ready for tourists?

A: Authorities have estimated that it will take one or more months just to empty the city of standing water. Neither private business owners nor government officials have had the opportunity to conduct damage assessment.

"Any guess about how long it will take to get back to normal is a wild guess," said Louisiana State University professor Jim Richardson, an economist whose specialties include tourism. "I'd say that to get everything back into shape, to re-create the New Orleans we knew and enjoyed, you're talking a year, maybe more."

Q: I've heard that the recovery will be quickest downtown and in the French Quarter. True?

A: Most likely, yes. The historic French Quarter has one of the highest elevations in the city, so it suffered less water damage. Workers who visited the area Tuesday night reported that legendary Bourbon Street was emptied of water. A collapsed wall that exposed part of the interior of the famed Antoine's Restaurant represented a unique example of visible damage to a Quarter landmark. But assessments for less obvious damage have not yet been made.

Many large, well-built hotels weathered the storm fairly well. For example, the 14 Marriott hotels in New Orleans seem to have no structural damage, said company spokesman John Wolf. The company has engineers and equipment standing by in Baton Rouge, La., ready to return to New Orleans as soon as officials allow.

Q: Miami seemed to bounce back quickly from Hurricane Andrew. Maybe New Orleans will do the same?

"It took us years and years and years to fully recover," said Bill Talbert, CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. Moreover, unlike New Orleans, Miami's downtown and major tourist attractions were largely spared. "People's homes were destroyed, but their jobs were intact," said Talbert.

Hurricane Hugo, which hit Charleston, S.C., in 1989, actually spurred improvements in its historic downtown, said Katie Chapman of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Our historic district was impacted terribly, but a lot of older homes that needed work anyway finally got it done," she said. Tourism began reviving in about six months; it took about a year to get the entire tourist area up to par.

Q: How about the Mississippi Gulf Coast's biggest tourist draw, floating casinos? Are casinos in New Orleans still standing?

A: Every one of Mississippi's 13 floating casinos in Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis were seriously damaged or destroyed. Several, including Harrah's Grand Casino Biloxi and Grand Casino Gulfport, were torn from their moorings and swept hundreds of yards inland. The Hard Rock Biloxi, which was set to open Sept. 8, has been seriously damaged. In and around New Orleans, Harrah's, Boomtown and Boyd Gaming's Treasure Chest all reported minor to moderate damage. But "like nearly every other structure in the area, they remain unapproachable other than by boat," said Wade Duty, executive director of the Casino Association of Louisiana.

Holly Thomson, spokeswoman for the American Gaming Association, said the gaming industry in Gulfport and Biloxi generates about $911.5 million in annual revenues; in New Orleans, casinos bring in about $608.8 million annually. Casinos draw about 12 million tourists each year to Biloxi alone and employs 14,000 people along the Gulf Coast.

The destruction of the floating casinos has already sparked discussion among Mississipi legislators about changing the law that prohibits constructing casinos on land.

Q: What about Alabama?

A: The state's primary tourist destinations along the Gulf Coast are recovering quickly. "Orange Beach is ready to welcome back visitors for the summer's last hurrah — Labor Day weekend," said Bibi Gauntt of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau last week. "Gulf Shores, which has a lower elevation, is a little further behind and will take several days longer." Late last week, part of Fort Morgan was already open to visitors, while Dolphin Island was closed. Updates will be available at 800-ALABAMA, www.touralabama.org.

Q: I have an airline ticket to New Orleans for Monday. Can I get my money back?

A: You might be offered a voucher for future travel, but when flights are canceled, you're entitled to a refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket, said Bill Mosely, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Q: I have a ticket to New Orleans for November, but I doubt I'll want to go, even if the city is accepting visitors. Can I get a refund or change the ticket?

A: If the flight you booked is operating, the airline is not obligated to give you a refund on a nonrefundable ticket, nor is it obligated to waive the usual $100 round-trip change fee, said Mosely. But the airlines are being flexible about nonrefundable tickets, to varying degrees. At press time, Southwest's generous options included a refund for certain tickets held to or from New Orleans through Jan. 9. Five airlines — Delta, Northwest, Continental, US Airways and American — were waiving change fees through Oct. 31. United was waiving fees through Sept. 30.

From there, the policies diverge. Some, for example, are including some airports besides New Orleans or offering refunds. Check your airline's Web site — some allow you to make changes online — or call for details.

Q: I have a nonrefundable ticket for November for a trip I no longer want to take, but my airline is waiving fees only through Oct. 31. Isn't that unfair? The hurricane wasn't my fault.

A: It wasn't the airlines' fault, either. Refundable tickets are more expensive because you pay for flexibility.

Q: How about the cruise lines along the Gulf Coast? Have schedules been affected?

A: Five cruise lines — Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Delta Queen Steamboat Co. and Riverbarge Excursions — have ships home-ported in New Orleans or Mobile, Ala., for at least part of the year.

Passengers who were aboard both Carnival's Sensation and Carnival's Conquest were redirected from New Orleans to Galveston, Texas. The Sensation will sail out of Galveston at least through Monday. Passengers who were aboard Carnival's Holiday were redirected from Mobile to Tampa. The line canceled Holiday's Aug. 29 cruise, offering passengers a full refund, but was to resume cruising from Mobile Saturday.

Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas and Norwegian's Sun both do a Western Caribbean itinerary from New Orleans, starting in December and October, respectively. Neither line has announced any changes to those plans.

Q: I put a big deposit on a hotel room in New Orleans. Can I get it back?

A: Of course, you should receive a refund if your hotel isn't accepting guests. The real test is to come, as hotels reopen in locations that travelers may not consider tourist-ready.

Marriott is waiving late cancellation penalties for guests scheduled to arrive in its New Orleans properties through Sept. 15, as has Sheraton. The Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which suffered what appears to be serious damage, has notified all guests slated to arrive by Sept. 15 that they cannot be accommodated. Watch for that date to slide forward, since tourists may not even be allowed back to the city by then.

Besides, even if a room suffers only water damage, it can take weeks to test every wall and furnishing for mold, to clean and get rid of it, and to test again. Many rooms that reopen will be filled with claims adjusters, relief and construction workers, and evacuees.

Copyright © 2005 The Washington Post

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