NEW ORLEANS (AP) — For all the talk of the BP oil spill scaring tourists away from Louisiana and the beaches of Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida, one city in the region has stayed full of visitors since the crisis began.
New Orleans has seen steady convention traffic and a high volume of visitors virtually throughout the 2½-month spill, normally a slower time of year, and you can hardly find a hotel room for this weekend's Essence Music Festival.
Some 35,000 rooms are booked for the weekend because of the music festival, spill relief workers and the National Education Association's 15,000-delegate conference.
Since the spill began, hotel occupancy in the New Orleans area has hovered around 70 percent, comparable to the same period last year, said Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel Lodging Association.
Still, tourism officials say they have to overcome the perception that the Crescent City has been fouled by the massive oil spill.
"Our challenge is the future because we're getting more calls from people asking about the spill and its effect on New Orleans. We're dealing with perception," she said.
Though New Orleans has no beaches, the city shares the perception that oil is everywhere. Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it's critical to erase that notion as soon as possible.
"We need a lot of help with damage control," said Landrieu, who also served as the state's lieutenant governor and chief tourism advocate.
For the holiday weekend, though, most visitors' minds are on the music. Essence Festival performers include Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Gladys Knight and Earth, Wind and Fire.
Raphael Saadiq, whose hits include "Never Give You Up" and "Anniversary," said he's pleased that the festival invited him to return.
"I have family in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, in Monroe and Shreveport. So I love coming down here for the food and the people. The people who come for this all come to celebrate music," Saadiq said.
Chrisette Michele, who brings her neo soul-rock-jazz fusion sounds Friday to one of the festival's Superlounges, said the atmosphere at the Essence festival is electric and one of the venues she always looks forward to.
"The reception I received last year, meant so much to me," said the singer, whose song, "Be OK" won a Grammy last year. "I was performing in the lounge and I told my mom I don't think anybody's going to show because Mary J. Blige was performing at the same time and I was literally scared. But when I saw that the space was full, that people couldn't even get in, I was so overjoyed."
In a normal year, Essence alone would more than triple the number of tourists in the city. In 2009, a record-breaking 428,000 people participated in the three-day event that mixes nightly ticketed concerts in the Louisiana Superdome with free daily seminars in the convention center. Its economic impact is at least $200 million, Essence has said.
The festival is helping to boost New Orleans businesses even as the perception that oil has soiled beaches and fishing areas from Louisiana to Florida threatens to harm the region's tourism at the height of the summer season.
"July 4th is extremely weak in traditional urban environments all over the United States because people usually go visit relatives in the country or go to the beach," said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But when you have Essence in the mix, it has an absolutely incredible impact on the city's summer economy."
Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., said the festival is thrilled to return to "help bolster the economy of this city and this region."
Landrieu said the city has asked BP for $75 million for a national tourism campaign. That's on top of the $15 million each already provided to the state, Mississippi and Alabama and $25 million for Florida.
Landrieu said TV reports on the spill give viewers the sense the city is under siege by tar balls and oil when in fact the impact is along the state's coastline many miles (kilometers) away. Concerns over seafood safety also are hurting, even though 70 percent of Gulf waters are open to fishermen and there have been no reports of oil-related illnesses stemming from seafood, the mayor said.
Perry said visitors shouldn't worry about finding restaurant menus depleted by the oil spill. "There is an abundance of fresh, safe seafood," he said. "Our fish supply is good. Our crab and shrimp supply is strong."
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