March 8, 2011 / 10:15 PM / 8 years ago

New Orleans lets the good times roll for Mardi Gras

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - It is hard to keep New Orleans, America’s party city, down.

A member of the Krewe of Zulu greeets revellers as they march down St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans, Louisiana March 8, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner

Judging by the frenzy of flamboyant costumes, the dancing and drinking on Fat Tuesday, the city was doing its best to forget the twin disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill that brought it to its knees.

Hotels were near capacity again, the planes were full and the French Quarter was buzzing.

“And people have come with money,” said Martin Driskell, general manager of Hotel Intercontinental in downtown New Orleans. “Revenue from our lobby bar, which overlooks the parade route, is double what it was last year at this time.”

Not quite a year has passed since an explosion on a BP oil platform created a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The April 2010 spill hit the city’s tourism and seafood industries as it was rebounding from Hurricane Katrina five years earlier.

But in New Orleans, locals are expert at letting the good times roll in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season.

Kevin Kelly’s Carnival party is among the hottest tickets in town and couples in elaborate costumes lined up on St. Charles Avenue to get in.

Kelly owns a huge expanse of warehouse space that serves New Orleans’ coffee and metals trades, and a sprawling upriver tourist attraction called Houmas House Plantation and Gardens.

Dressed as the legendary pirate Jean Lafitte, Kelly held court in his ultra-stylish home on the avenue where champagne flowed as guests roamed the house and passersby peered in at the costumed guests through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Kelly bought the building on the parade route 15 years ago. After five years of renovations he opened it to friends, family and business associates for six days of celebrations. He estimates he entertains 1,500 people during Mardi Gras.

“The Carnival experience I provide is one of comfort and luxury,” Kelly said. “You can live out your fantasies and have fun the way you like it.”

Tourism officials said it is too early to tell if New Orleans and Mardi Gras have completely recovered from the Katrina and the BP spill.

Last November, BP committed $30 million to help tourism and another $30 million to promote the state’s seafood, mainly through the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

Using money previously received from BP, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a $5 million public relations and advertising campaign across major U.S. markets last June to counter the visitor decline from the oil spill.

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Driskell said occupancy was running close to 100 percent even before Fat Tuesday. At Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, spokeswoman Michelle Duffourc said the plans are full.

Mardi Gras is later this year and coincides with Spring Break at many colleges and universities, which also helps to attract more visitors.

But the weather has been chilly and rainy, not exactly ideal for parades, said Jacques Berry, communication director for Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, who oversees the state’s tourism department.

Additional Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Greg McCune

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