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Friday, September 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How Katrina impacts Gulf Coast travel

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, but assessments for less obvious damage have not yet been made.

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

A: "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.

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 was 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 employ 14,000 people along the Gulf Coast.

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

Q: I have a ticket to New Orleans for November, but I doubt I'll 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. Southwest's options include a refund for certain tickets held to or from New Orleans through Jan. 9. Five airlines — Delta, Northwest, Continental, US Airways and American — are waiving change fees through Oct. 31. United is waiving fees through Sept. 30.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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