Tourists Slow To Return To New Orleans

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NEW ORLEANS — Musicians aren't the only ones singing the blues in the French Quarter. Local merchants say Hurricane Katrina washed away their business a year ago.
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    "It may look good on the outside, but on the inside, all these businesses in the French Quarter are hurting," said Mel Ziegler, who owns and leases nearly two dozen commercial properties in the French Quarter.

    Tourism, which accounts for about nine-tenths of the New Orleans economy, is down by 60 percent from pre-Katrina levels. Ziegler said basic city services and utilities still aren't up to par.

    "There's no clear sense of direction or leadership from city government let alone state government," he said.

    When Europeans first settled in New Orleans in the 1700s, neighborhoods grew out from the French Quarter. A year after Katrina, a similar pattern has developed, and the French Quarter continues to be the lifeblood of the city.

    Stephen Cohen's family has had an antiques shop in the French Quarter for more than 100 years. He lost half of his employees after the storm and, like other business owners, is finding it impossible to find help.

    New Orleans lost about a third of its work force -- 190,000 people -- when families chose never to return to the ravaged city. The increased competition for employees has sent labor costs soaring beyond the means of many businesses.

    But Cohen said the biggest obstacle to rebuilding his business is bad press.

    "Our business has been hurt by one thing primarily, and that is negative publicity," he said. "People who do come in from out of town frequently tell us (that), before they left, their friends tell them, 'Are you crazy to go to New Orleans?'"

    Ziegler said tourists are crazy not to come to New Orleans, where deals on hotels and restaurants are now plentiful. The can-do attitude of a city that has survived much devastation through the years is reason enough to visit, he said.

    "The devastation is greater this time, but the heart and spirit of the people is still here," he said.