New Orleans set new tourism records in 2013; should we be cheering?

French Quarter photo

Tuesday I received a press release trumpeting the success of New Orleans in attracting tourists, and it’s hard not to look at the announcement without at least a twinge of uneasiness. According to the study, New Orleans had 9.28 million visitors last year, and to the extent that the number represents money coming into the city, that’s a good thing. But when I read a line from Mark Romig, President and CEO of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Commission that read, “We love our city. We love our way of life. And so do millions of visitors. The 2013 report shows that visitors are exploring more and more of our city and experiencing our unique culture and neighborhoods from the Bywater to MidCity to the Riverbend," it’s hard not to feel like we’re cast in the role of another tourist attraction.

I don’t mean to gotcha Romig with that quote, by the way. I’m sure he meant it as an indication that tourists are embracing New Orleans and not just the Quarter, and that people want to get us, not just our most tourist-friendly entry point where our culture is often caricatured for easy access. The question for me is whether that’s something we should celebrate, and I’d be less wary if I thought civic leaders were seriously developing economic avenues other than tourism. But when I saw this press release, I imagined happy dances in many downtown offices and people saying, “Those are numbers we can build on.”  

The press release quotes Mayor Mitch Landrieu as saying:

The people, culture, food and entertainment in New Orleans are arguably the best in the world. We take pride in offering our visitors an authentic experience and are adding new options every year, so it’s no surprise that the city is continuing to see record breaking visitor numbers. New Orleans is on a roll and we’re thrilled that visitors across the globe are taking notice.

That quote also seems to make us a tourist attraction - thankfully, an authentic one, but just as the presence of cameras affects behavior on reality shows, how long will we remain authentic if we exist to entertain tourists? 

Obviously, I’m being very literal in my reading of these quotes, and I know how slippery the term “authentic” is. I’m also aware that New Orleanians have been anxious about the impact of tourism since the dawn of a tourism industry, and we’ve managed to stay “us” despite the growth of tourism for more than a century. I believe we’ll continue to find ways to assert an essential New Orleans-ness, even in the face of further tourism, but we need more discussion about the desirability and manageability of further growth in New Orleans tourism, and the degree to which it is the economic engine to which civic leaders have hitched our collective wagons. The belief that growth is automatically good needs to be questioned. Is an endlessly growing French Quarter Festival a good thing, for example? Is an ever-expanding influx of tourists a cause for celebration, or do we need to think more carefully about the impact of further increases in tourism? 

Here’s the press release

New Orleans Achieves 9.28 Million Visitors in 2013

NEW ORLEANS – (April 22, 2014) – New Orleans’ tourism industry welcomed 9.28 million visitors in 2013, an increase of three percent, or about 272,000 people, from 2012 (9.01 million). The 9.28 million visitors spent $6.47 billion, a 4.5 percent increase over 2012 and the highest spending in the city’s history, according to a study released today.

The 2013 New Orleans Area Visitor Profile study, completed by the University of New Orleans (UNO) Hospitality Research Center for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (NOTMC) represents a milestone.

In 2003 New Orleans welcomed 8.5 million visitors, who spent $4.5 billion. The year 2004 was a record-breaking year, with 10.1 million visitors and visitor spending totaling $4.9 billion. After Hurricane Katrina, visitor numbers dropped to 3.7 million in 2006, with $2.8 billion in visitor spending. Due to the efforts of the New Orleans CVB and the NOTMC, visitor numbers increased to 7.1 million in 2007 with $4.8 billion in spending. Numbers increased in 2008 and 2009, ultimately reaching 8.75 million visitors and $5.49 billion in spending in 2011. 

Seventy-five percent of the respondents who offered open-ended comments in 2013 provided positive feedback about the city; 46.8 percent of them plan to return or recommend New Orleans to others.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, “The people, culture, food and entertainment in New Orleans are arguably the best in the world. We take pride in offering our visitors an authentic experience and are adding new options every year, so it’s no surprise that the city is continuing to see record breaking visitor numbers. New Orleans is on a roll and we’re thrilled that visitors across the globe are taking notice.”

All key indicators increased in 2013, compared to 2012:

  • Lodging spending increased by eight percent
  • Restaurant spending increased by 3.2 percent
  • Spending in bars and nightclubs rose by six percent
  • 77.2 percent of visitors surveyed were in New Orleans for vacation/pleasure
  • 13 percent of visitors surveyed were in New Orleans for association, convention, tradeshow or corporate meetings
  • 9.8 percent of visitors surveyed were in town for general business
  • 55.4 percent of business travelers extended their stay for pleasure for an average of two nights
  • Cruise visitors comprised about 2.1 percent of the total number of visitor responses, and they stayed an average of two nights in New Orleans before or after their cruise

The 2013 New Orleans Area Visitor Profile report also found:

  •  The proportion of visitors with income of $150,000 or more was 17.2 percent; 20.6 percent have a household income of more than $100,000
  • 42.5 percent of New Orleans visitors were in town for the first time; 57.5 percent were repeat visitors
  • Overnight visitation from top feeder markets outside of Louisiana were: Texas, Florida, California and Mississippi
  • Visitors age 50-64 made up the largest demographic for 2013 visitors (35.6 percent), followed by 35-49 (28.1 percent), 25-34 (17.8 percent), 65 and older (12.7 percent) and 18-24 (5.9 percent)
  • Overnight visitor stays in New Orleans was an average of 4.2 nights
  •  The proportion of overnight visitors staying in a hotel decreased slightly to 59.5 percent
  • Average party size was three people
  •  The majority of visitors who stayed in a hotel made reservations through the hotel website (27.2 percent), or a travel website (21.3 percent), and 12.6 percent of visitors called their hotel directly.
  • The majority of New Orleans area visitors surveyed arrived in their personal vehicle (49.3 percent) or by airplane (45.6 percent)

“The traveler economy at its core is about driving economic growth and enriching the lives of people. The more than nine million visitors in 2013 pumped a record of $6.47 billion in spending directly into our city,” said Stephen Perry, President and CEO of the New Orleans CVB. “That money contributes greatly to state and local economies and supports jobs for more than 78,000 New Orleanians from every neighborhood.”

“We love our city. We love our way of life. And so do millions of visitors. The 2013 report shows that visitors are exploring more and more of our city and experiencing our unique culture and neighborhoods from the Bywater to MidCity to the Riverbend," said Mark Romig, President and CEO of NOTMC. “We are working together with city administration and business leaders to continue this growth in visitation and bringing tourism jobs and activities to areas of the city that could use our industry’s economic support.”

“The past five years have demonstrated incredibly strong growth in the number of visitors and their spending, with repeat visitation of 57.5 percent as evidence that New Orleans has a great formula for visitor satisfaction.  This type of sustained economic growth over so many segments of the hospitality and tourism industry facilitates a heightened level of economic development in numerous other sectors of the economy for the Greater New Orleans area,” said John Williams, PhD, Dean of College of Business Administration at UNO.

The University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center is a collaborative effort of the University of New Orleans’ Division of Business and Economic Research (DBER) and the Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration (HRT). Its function is to provide a variety of research services to hospitality, travel and tourism organizations. The HRC has been producing reports similar to this visitor study since 1997.

The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation is the City of New Orleans’ official leisure travel promotion agency created to foster jobs and economic growth by developing the tourism industry in New Orleans. NOTMC is publicly funded and provides year-round online marketing, advertising, public relations and special event programming in order to support the growth of leisure travel to New Orleans.

The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau is a nationally accredited, 1,100-member destination marketing organization and the largest and most successful private economic development corporation in Louisiana. The CVB and its members influence thousands of decision-makers and millions of visitors to choose New Orleans through direct sales, marketing, public relations, branding and visitor services at our New Orleans headquarters and offices in Washington, D.C., Chicago and four foreign countries. Consistently recognized as one of the top five CVBs in the country, the New Orleans CVB celebrates its 54th anniversary in 2014. For more information, please visit www.neworleanscvb.comwww.facebook.com/neworleanscvbwww.twitter.com/neworleans.