NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Mark and Glenda Dodd of Panama City Beach, Florida, could have booked a Mexico-bound cruise out of Miami, but on Monday they stood among hundreds of other passengers lining up to board the Carnival Cruise Line ship Elation in New Orleans.
"We wanted to come to New Orleans and spend a night in the French Quarter," Mark Dodd said. "This way we get the cruise and we get New Orleans."
His words are music to the ears of local tourism marketers, who have spent the past six years trying to persuade the traveling public that New Orleans has retained its appeal as a visitor destination despite the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
That storm and the massive flooding that followed all but destroyed large sections of New Orleans, striking a huge blow to tourism and shutting down the passenger cruise business, which before the storm was growing faster than that of any other cruise port in the country.
On Monday, cruise industry and local port officials gathered aboard the 2,000-passenger Elation to announce that local cruise passenger capacity has reached pre-Katrina levels.
"New Orleans has been revitalized and it's one of the most popular cities in the country," Robert Huffman Jr., a regional vice president of sales for Carnival, told Reuters. "The city sells itself."
Carnival, which initially returned to New Orleans with a smaller ship, this week began a year-round cruising schedule by the Elation and a 3,000-passenger vessel, Conquest. New Orleans is now the home port for both.
On Sunday, Royal Caribbean International also launched regular service from New Orleans to the Caribbean aboard the 3,100-passenger Voyager of the Seas, the largest passenger vessel ever based in New Orleans.
Along with ships from Norwegian Cruise Lines, these will likely pull more than a million cruise passengers into the city annually, Port of New Orleans President Gary LaGrange said.
"I hope this will quiet some of New Orleans' critics," he said while aboard the Elation.
LaGrange said the port has begun preliminary design work for a new $35 million cruise terminal just down the Mississippi River from the city's two existing terminals.
Kelly Schulz, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau Inc., said that the road to tourism recovery has been tough.
After Katrina, the city's average annual tourist trade of almost 9 million visitors fell by about 60 percent, she said.
But funding from Federal grants supported the major tourism recovery effort that helped grow the visitor market steadily in subsequent years, she said.
Then, in 2010, came the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which once again sent marketers scrambling to overcome negative publicity, this time about the possible effects of the spill on seafood and the local environment.
"Our marketing efforts worked," Schultz said. "Last year, New Orleans had 8.3 million visitors - the most we've seen since Katrina."
Schultz said one benefit the city enjoys from the cruise business is the boost it gives to local hotels.
Passengers typically drive or fly into New Orleans and spend two nights taking in local attractions before or after their cruise, she said.
As tourism marketers celebrate the growth in local cruises, though, they do so with a wary eye on local crime.
While the overall incidence of crime is within average rates for cities of similar size, the murder rate in New Orleans is 10 times higher than the national average, according to a U.S. Justice Department analysis released last spring.
Concerns about violence spiked early this month following a bloody Halloween night during which a man was killed and several others injured in a shooting on Bourbon Street as costumed revelers filled the city's French Quarter. A second man was killed and three people were wounded in a separate downtown shooting that same night on neighboring Canal Street.
"Those incidents made international headlines, so we did get questions. But we try to put it into context," Shultz said. "It was very rare to have that kind of violence in a crowded tourist area."
Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Bohan