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Mardi Gras high on spirit, low on sales

Estimated 350,000, down from usual 1 million, did little to boost economy
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bartenders on Bourbon Street usually measure the success of Mardi Gras according to the number of square inches of exposed pavement outside the door. This year, they could measure the space in square feet.

The turnout for New Orleans’ first Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina was way below normal — an estimated 350,000 this year, compared with the usual 1 million, according to the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. — and spending on hotel rooms, restaurant meals, antiques and souvenirs appeared to be down sharply as a result.

The bottom line: The city’s sputtering economy did not get the lift many had hoped for.

“When you can see the pavement on Bourbon Street, it’s not a good crowd,” said Frank Downs, vice president of Cats Meow, a karaoke bar on Bourbon Street, where sales were down at least 40 percent. “This Mardi Gras, we saw the pavement.”

Typically, the usually two-week Carnival season generates $1 billion in revenue for the city. While figures are not yet available for 2006, it is clear the smaller crowds — and the storm-abbreviated, eight-day season — translated into lower sales.

“In a normal year, we sell 1 million Hurricanes,” said Rupert Gwaltney, a manager at the French Quarter nightclub Pat O’Brien’s, referring to the bar’s famously potent cocktail. “This year, it’s way lower than that. Instead of tourists, the crowds were mostly locals and they’re busy spending on Sheetrock and insulation.”

Gwaltney estimated sales were down 40 percent compared with last year. At the Dixie Factory Outlet, a souvenir shop next door that specializes in feathered masks and long beads, Nalini Wickramaratne said that in a normal eight-hour shift during Mardi Gras, she usually takes in $6,000. On Fat Tuesday, she worked a 13-hour shift and did only $3,000 worth of sales.

Hotels were booked solid, but there were far fewer of them open than usual and many rooms still held displaced locals and government workers. Instead of the 38,000 hotel rooms of last year, the city now has 25,000, of which 15,000 were open to tourists, said Darrius Gray, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association.

Tables at the city’s fine restaurants were full, but again, there were fewer of them: 506 restaurants were operating out of 1,882 restaurants pre-Katrina, said Tom Weatherly, vice president for research at the New Orleans Restaurant Association.

Yet even business owners who suffered losses said having Mardi Gras was a form of therapy.

Bar owners on Bourbon Street pointed to the heaps of empty beer bottles and discarded to-go cups as a sign of progress: It showed the world, they said, that New Orleans lives.

“I don’t think we can measure the success of this Mardi Gras by its crowds but by its spirit,” said Mary Herczog, author of Frommer’s Guide to New Orleans and a regular visitor to Mardi Gras. “The pleasure I saw was enormous. Honestly, what does crowd size matter compared to that? I wasn’t counting heads because I was too busy counting smiles.”