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New Orleans' tourism booms 10 years after Hurricane Katrina

Revelers party in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras Day, March 4, 2014 in New Orleans.
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Revelers party in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras Day, March 4, 2014 in New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina may have washed away New Orleans' booming tourism sector, but 10 years later, the city's hospitality industry is standing strong.

In 2004, a record 10.1 million people visited New Orleans, spending more than $4.9 billion on hotels, restaurants and local attractions, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In the wake of Katrina, the number of tourists shriveled to to 3.7 million, down a startling 63 percent. Spending numbers also shrank, with visitors shelling out 42 percent less in 2006 than in 2004.

Tourism in New Orleans was back to square one.

Ten years on, the city has seen a renaissance. In 2014, more than 9.5 million visitors traveled to New Orleans, pouring $6.8 billion into the local economy.

The number of restaurants in the city has grown from 800 to more than 1,400, according to Mark Romig, president of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.

There has been a marked increase for hotels as well, with inventory returning to the 38,000 hotel rooms it had prior to Katrina. Major chains like Virgin Hotels and Ace Hotels have begun development in the city.

New Orleans has 80,000 jobs in the hospitality sector and is slated to add 33,000 more in preparation for its tricentennial.

And that's not all.

The French Quarter, the crown jewel of New Orleans, endured considerable damage during Hurricane Katrina, but has since been revitalized along with the other 72 neighborhoods in the city.

New Orleans is slated to host 126 permitted festivals in 2015 all across the city, from the six-mile stretch of retail shops on Magazine Street to the art galleries in Bywater and the Jazz Market in the Garden District.

"We are looking at this week, particularly with the 10th anniversary of Katrina, as really a pivot point," Romig said. "It's important for us to remember those that we lost and the loss that occurred in the city and to thank those individuals and organizations and cities and countries that came to our aid, but it's also important to for us to close this door and look forward."

Justin Devillier, who took majority ownership of La Petite Grocery in 2010, said that the restaurant has expanded its hours to accommodate the influx of visitors to the city.

"Because New Orleans has such a large number of tourists throughout the year we wanted to be accessible every day of the week to every visitor," Devillier said. "We've seen our number grow exponentially in the last four years."

He noted that the period of 2005 to 2009 was the most difficult for entrepreneurs because of the "small fires that Katrina started," but that most businesses did not experience an economic slump because of all of the money that poured in for Katrina relief efforts.

"By the time 2009 and 2010 came around I think that everyone felt comfortable about getting out of the Katrina era ... we had gotten past it," he added. "Maybe it was because the Saints won the Super Bowl ... something got us over the hump."