Mardi Gras Boosts Big Easy Business

Lori Whitehead from Jackson, Miss. looks at art for sale on Lundi Gras in the French Quarter of New Orleans Monday, Feb. 19, 2007. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Todd and Julie Sutton walked hand in hand down Bourbon Street Monday, looking tired but happy, the beads that draped them clinking with every step.

The St. Louis couple were enjoying the mild weather and looking for a leisurely breakfast as they wound down from a weekend of Carnival revelry.

"We haven't stopped since Friday," Todd, 29, said. "It's been everything we thought Mardi Gras would be. We loved the parades, and the French Quarter is a blast."

The Suttons were among the crowd in town for the final weekend leading up to Mardi Gras, a crowd that merchants, hotel operators and others felt would exceed the 700,000 the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau said visited the city during the same time period last year.

But those 700,000 will be leaving town after Fat Tuesday, and as CBS News correspondent Tracy Smith reports, many of the city's permanent residents could soon be following.

A recent study by the University of New Orleans found that nearly a third of the people here say they might be moving in the next two years.

After Hurricane Katrina, the homicide rate in New Orleans has climbed to one of the highest in the country – and 17 officers a month are quitting the police department.

"I don't want my kids to grow up looking at this stuff everyday," says resident Tyrone Wilson.

Despite the expected exodus, parts of the city were relishing the Mardi Gras boost in business sales.

"It was an excellent weekend," said Michael Valentino, managing partner of three French Quarter hotels. "We ran in the high 90s occupancy for Saturday, Sunday and Monday night. There is clearly more demand this year. It's feeling more like our normal Mardi Gras pressure."

The city was eager to stage it's annual pre-Lenten celebration last year to show tourists that they could return. The first Carnival since Hurricane Katrina was scaled down, only 68 flights were coming into the city, only 42 parades rolled, and there were only 600 restaurants operating. Of the 20,000 hotel rooms that were habitable last year, only 13,000 were available to visitors. The rest were taken by FEMA, volunteers and contractors.

This year there are 30,000 hotel rooms, 1,648 restaurants open, 110 flights operating, and 50 major parades, according to the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation.

"The weekend was surprisingly busy," said Earl Bernhardt, co-owner of two bars and a blues club in the Quarter. "The crowd is bigger and they're spending a lot of money."

More than 95 percent of the city's total available rooms were reserved for Mardi Gras weekend, said Fred Sawyers, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association and general manager of the New Orleans Hilton. That's up from 92 percent occupancy for the first weekend of Carnival.

One of the lingering problems for restaurants and bars is the lack of employees. Since Hurricane Katrina scattered the city's residents, many places have scrambled to get workers.

Pat O'Brien's, the famous Quarter bar and patio that is home to the rum drink the Hurricane, visitors did not seem to mind the shortage, said Shelly Waguespack, vice president of administration.

"People seem to understand," she said. "It's a happy group. They aren't complaining."

Pat O'Brien's, like most of the Quarter bars, would stay open nearly all night, Waguespack said.

"We'll close about 5 a.m. and open up again about nine," she said. "Mardi Gras makes people very thirsty."

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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