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New Orleans set for tourism score with top sporting events

The new Hyatt, which reopened last month in the shadow of the Superdome, has a front-row seat as New Orleans prepares to host a string of major sporting and cultural events that promise to deliver an extraordinary boost to the city’s tourism trade – its economic lifeblood and largest employer.

“It’s definitely an exciting time in New Orleans,” said hotel spokeswoman Lauren Cason.

Over the next 18 months, New Orleans will be the site of college football’s national championship game in January, the 2012 NCAA Final Four and Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournaments, the 2013 women’s Final Four and the 2013 Super Bowl.

Outside the sports world, the Port of New Orleans will welcome a fleet of tall ships and military vessels in April as part of a bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812. That same month, an air show featuring the Navy’s Blue Angels is expected to draw more than 100,000 people.

Add those to an annual batch of bowl games and festivals, including Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, and it’s easy to see why the city’s hotels, restaurants and other tourism-driven businesses are giddily anticipating a big windfall.

“This is truly an unprecedented moment in our city’s history,” said Mark Romig, head of the city-funded New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.

The festivities begin in earnest this week with the Bayou Classic, the annual football clash between rivals Southern University and Grambling State University. The annual Battle of the Bands on the eve of Saturday’s game remains a popular draw, but the Bayou Classic’s organizers also expanded the week’s slate of events to include a Thanksgiving Day parade and a golf tournament.

“We want to bring the whole community together and open it up to the entire city,” said Dottie Belletto of the New Orleans Convention Company, the Bayou Classic’s new management firm.

The city itself stands to cash in along with private businesses. January’s BCS championship game and the men’s Final Four are expected to generate an estimated $1.8 million in tax revenue for New Orleans next year, according to a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The following year, the Super Bowl alone is expected to yield the same tax bonanza.

Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation director Jay Cicero, whose group teamed up with the Saints to submit the winning bid for the 2013 Super Bowl, said hosting the 2008 NBA All-Star Game helped restore New Orleans’ reputation as a “big-event city” in Katrina’s aftermath.

“There was a question about whether New Orleans could host these big events. The NBA All-Star game really put that to rest,” Cicero said.

As rosy as the outlook for next year appears, 2011 won’t be an easy act for New Orleans to follow. About 4.8 million people visited the city during the first half of this year, a 7.7 percent increase over the first half of 2010, and spent a total of $3.1 billion during those six months, according to a study by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center.

The center, whose annual study is commissioned by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and Romig’s group, projects that visitors will spend a total of $5.6 billion during all of 2011. That would be the largest amount of tourist spending the city has ever seen, up from $5.3 billion in 2010, said John Williams, dean of UNO’s College of Business Administration.

Williams said the city’s tourism industry has been on a roll since the New Orleans Saints won the 2010 Super Bowl, priceless positive publicity for a city fighting the perception that Katrina rendered it a wasteland.

By Gerald Herbert, AP

Left to right, Willie Andrews, Revert Andrews, and Revon Andrews, of the New Life Brass Band, perform in the French Quarter section of New Orleans, Nov. 11.

“Everybody became fascinated with New Orleans,” he said. “They wanted to be here, celebrating.”

Williams said a staggered lineup of festivals kept many tourism-driven businesses from suffering last year during the summer months.

“July and August used to be very, very slow. That’s not the case anymore,” he said. “It’s hard to come into New Orleans and miss having a festival going on.”

BP’s oil spill in 2010 cast a pall over the Gulf Coast, but many restaurants say business has rebounded. Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of the Drago’s seafood restaurants in New Orleans and Metairie, said a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign funded by BP helped ease concerns of wary customers.

“We very, very seldom – if ever- get questions now about whether the oysters are safe,” he said.

A playoff run for the Saints this season would be another boon for the city, especially while the Hornets are idle. The labor dispute between the NBA players and owners already has cost the New Orleans Arena several Hornets home games.

But the NBA lockout is hardly spoiling New Orleans’ party.

“We just have all this momentum in the city right now,” Cicero said.

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