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Gulf Coast Welcomes Tourists

Hurricane Wilma is bearing down on Florida and could have an impact on the state's tourism industry. Other major travel destinations such as New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., which were crippled by hurricane Katrina, are desperately trying to lure vacationers and their money back to the Gulf Coast.

Travel journalist Valarie D'Elia told The Early Show that there has been a lot of progress in rebuilding New Orleans. Fortunately, many popular tourist areas escaped heavy damage but it is still in the process of rebuilding its infrastructure.

By January first, the tourism board says the city should be ready to accommodate visitors. Currently, most of the hotels are occupied by recovery workers and hotel workers who've lost their homes.

By the end of October officials expect, 80 percent of the hotels will be operational, and by the end of December, 95 percent to 100 percent of the hotels will be ready for business.

The message for tourist is: "Come see us, but not until the beginning of 2006," D'Elia said, which means for folks in the north, a couple days in New Orleans may be the perfect escape from cold winter temperatures.

As for Mardi Gras, D'Elia said it will go on, even thought the celebrations may be a bit scaled down. "The building that stores the floats made it through the storm mostly unscathed, so that's good news," D'Elia said. "Also Jazzfest, which is so important to the psyche of the people down there, will happen at the end of April, beginning of May. So if you've been looking forward to going down to the Crescent City for some partying or some good music or both, you can count on these two events."

She also said that there's much more to Louisiana besides the city of New Orleans. Baton Rouge is a great city to visit, and there's also plenty to do in the Cajun country.

Most of the state is open to tourists, but D'Elia said many of the areas along the coast did sustain some heavy damage. The casinos in Biloxi, in particular, which are a popular destination, were destroyed.

"The casinos down there are on barges near the hotels," she said. "Most of the 13 barge casinos along the coast are hoping to be back in business by the end of the year. And the state of Mississippi just passed a law that allows casinos to be built on land, closer to the hotels."

D'Elia said that tourists who were planning to go to Mississippi shouldn't cancel their plans just yet.

"There are many casinos located along the Mississippi River," she said. "And for all the golf fans hoping to hit the links on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, progress is being made: of the 13 golf courses along the coast, 10 have re-opened since Katrina. In fact, 75 percent of the state is open for tourism, and there are plenty of other places to visit: cities like Jackson, Natchez and Tunica just to name a few."

"The state has rebounded quite well," D'Elia said. "And they've just spent a half a million dollars on an ad campaign, so they're obviously making a push to get tourists back to that state."

Here are D'Elia's hurricane-season travel tips:

  • Book with a resort that has a hurricane guarantee. Many hotels that are in danger of hurricanes, especially those in the Caribbean, will reimburse you for lost days.
  • Purchase a travel insurance policy that will cover your costs in the event of a hurricane. It usually costs between 5 percent and 7 percent of the cost of the trip. It can be purchased through travel agents, online insurance comparison sites or directly through insurance carriers.
  • Stock up. Obtain a couple of day's worth of non-perishable food and water from the hotel gift shop or a nearby market. That way, if you find yourself in the middle of a hurricane, you're prepared to ride out the storm with enough food and drink.
  • Avoid connecting flights to minimize the chance of delays.
  • Sign up for airline alerts to learn of delays via e-mail, cell phone or PDA.

If you are looking for Southern flavor but are apprehensive about traveling to areas prone to hurricanes, D'Elia suggest going to Charleston, S.C., the Golden Isles, Ga., or Memphis, Tenn.

She said Charleston is steeped in American history. "Also, think about checking out the Golden Isles outside Savannah, Ga. The beaches are beautiful," she said. "There are plenty of great golf courses to choose from, the food is amazing. And there's plenty to do outdoors: hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing and let's not forget about the shopping. Also you can find some of that Southern charm in Nashville and Memphis, Tenn., two very popular tourist destinations."

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