In New Orleans, a Preview of a Possible Summer Travel Boom

NEW ORLEANS—For much of the past year, this city’s Frenchmen Street has been largely silent, the result of pandemic-related lockdowns and a nosedive in tourism. “Butt naked,” is how brass-band leader

James Williams

described Frenchmen, known for its typically bustling all-hours live-music venues.

But in recent weeks, the street—and much of New Orleans—has shown new signs of life.

In mid-March, Mayor

LaToya Cantrell

allowed musicians to resume live performances. Their return has corresponded with a surge in vaccinated tourists eager to experience the city’s celebratory culture that many say represents everything the pandemic isn’t.

“It’s like being reborn,” said

Douglas Emmer,

co-owner of the Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchmen, who reported the venue has sold out nearly every seat in the house, many to tourists, since reopening at 50% capacity six weeks ago. “This is like opening night in 2009. And everyone that comes in is just smiling.”

The uptick in tourism has arrived as the city shows signs of managing the pandemic. Covid-19 positivity rates in New Orleans have remained steadily under 1% for the past two months, according to the Louisiana Department of Health, and 54% of residents over 16 have received their first vaccine doses, giving the city one of the highest vaccination rates in the state. Louisiana reported 769 new cases and 302 people hospitalized with Covid-19 on Monday. About 2.7 million vaccine doses have been administered in the state, or about 58,700 per 100,000 people, one of the lower rates among states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other U.S. cities that rely heavily on tourist dollars are seeing an uptick in travelers. Las Vegas, where tourism represents close to 50% of the region’s gross product, saw a 45% month-over-month increase in visitors this March. Hotel occupancy in Nashville’s Davidson County is at 59% for March, up from 47% in February. New York City’s April hotel occupancy rates are at 54%, up from 49% in March, according to hospitality analytics company STR.

More broadly, hotels across the U.S. were at 59% occupancy for April, up from 45% in February, according to STR.

American Airlines

plans to fly more than 90% of the number of flights it flew in 2019, and is adding service from its Austin hub to popular destinations including Orlando, Tampa and New Orleans.

Mr. Williams said he went so long without playing his trumpet during the pandemic that the valves locked up.

For New Orleans, which relies on tourism for 42% of its operating budget and 100,000 jobs, the turnaround from a year ago has been profound. Indoor dining, restaurants and bars are allowed to operate at 100% capacity with distancing and masks, though dance clubs are closed.

Still, a full recovery is a ways off. The hospitality sector is heavily dependent on business conventions, which haven’t yet begun to show signs of returning, according to

Kelly Schulz,

communications manager for tourism center New Orleans & Co.

Last year, the city’s Mardi Gras festivities in February helped make New Orleans an early coronavirus hot spot. After flights into the city fell 97% and hotel occupancy rates dropped to nearly zero last spring, Frenchmen Street’s tourist-dependent music clubs largely boarded up their windows. Many remained closed for 54 straight weeks, thanks in part to a citywide shutdown ordinance barring live music.

Mr. Williams, a trumpeter for the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jass Band, went from booking daily gigs to going so long without playing that the valves of his instrument locked up.

“I [recently] took it to my repair guy and he was like, ‘What did you do?’ And I was like, ‘The issue is what I didn’t do!’”

On a recent Thursday evening, Dallas residents John and Susan Clark, 74 and 69 years old, were listening to the jazz spilling from the Spotted Cat from a high-top table on the street just outside the club. They said tickets were already sold out inside.

The couple hadn’t left the vicinity of their home for over a year until a few weeks ago, when they got in their car and drove to New Orleans, where their son lives. They chose an


near Frenchmen Street, they said, in part for easy access to live music.

“New Orleans is a very special place because of the music and I think there’s a certain joie de vivre that you don’t encounter in some other places,” said Mr. Clark, a retired journalist.

Mr. Williams and his Swamp Donkeys played one of their first gigs in over a year on a recent Friday evening to a packed audience in the outdoor courtyard of the Royal Frenchmen hotel.

The New Orleans economy relies heavily on tourism. But almost a year into the pandemic, with Mardi Gras and festival season on the horizon, many of the people who draw visitors to the city are struggling to survive financially. Photo illustration: Mark Moore (Video from 2/11/21)

“There are people running up the street crying,” said Mr. Williams of the scene on the street over the past few weeks. “They open up their wallets and tip the whole wallet. They’re like, ‘I haven’t listened to this in so long.’”

The Royal Frenchmen’s April occupancy rates are 72% of what they would ordinarily be, up from 56% in March and a low of zero during the pandemic’s peak, general manager

Tyler Daly

said. The hotel has sold out every weekend since the beginning of March.

While pre-pandemic the hotel often received complaints from guests who could hear bands playing from their rooms, “now, our number one positive review is being able to hear music from the hotel rooms,” Mr. Daly said.

At many downtown and French Quarter hotels, overall occupancy has been 90% or sold out on weekends and about 40% overall throughout April.

Meschiya Lake performed at the Royal Frenchmen hotel on Sunday.

The tourism surge is also providing relief to the city’s restaurant industry. Dooky Chase co-owner

Stella Chase-Reese

says the Tremé restaurant has been earning about 75% what it usually would this time of year, and people are making reservations for future months.

The sector is also facing staffing shortages. Mr. Emmer has only been able to get half the Spotted Cat’s staff back, since servers make less money from tips at reduced capacity. Mr. Daly said he has been living at his hotel, working a variety of jobs around the clock to compensate for staffing shortages. Ms. Schulz said that many of the industry’s workers moved away or found jobs in other sectors over the past year.

And yet, Ms. Chase-Reese says, the music is calling. “We put everyone’s health and safety first, but we show people how to have a great time,” she said. “Spring has sprung here because we’re beginning to see smiles on everyone’s faces.”


What travel tips do you have to share with other readers based on your recent ventures? Join the conversation below.

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