The chance that New Orleans might see a modest boost to tourism during this year’s final days of Carnival, still a hope among some hotels and business owners earlier this month, has faded.
A little more than a week ago, the city’s biggest hotels were expecting that bookings would reach as high as 60% on the season’s most popular weekend just ahead of Fat Tuesday.
But outrage across the city over large crowds on Bourbon Street in recent weeks, and the response by Mayor LaToya Cantrell to step up enforcement, shutter the city’s bars until Ash Wednesday and restrict access to popular gathering spots, appears to have dissuaded any last-minute tourists from making the trip.
Mavis Early, executive director of the New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association said Friday that city hotels expect occupancy of only 20%-to-25% this weekend, on average, compared to near full occupancy in the equivalent weekend last year.
That figure includes a broader cross-section of the city’s lodgings than just the towering hotels downtown, but managers of Carnival hotspots said the numbers jibe with what they’re seeing.
Steve Caputo, general manager of the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, said earlier this month he had been expecting occupancy would rise above 50% this weekend for the first time since the pandemic hit. But now it looks like it will fall well short.
Now, he said, Friday and Saturday occupancy rates were at 20% and 27%, respectively, and dropping sharply thereafter.
“Mardi Gras 2021 is a sad tale indeed,” Caputo said.
It was a quiet scene on city streets Friday as well as at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
Erin Burns, spokesperson for the airport, said they are currently forecasting daily passenger traffic will average about 15,500 during the Mardi Gras week. That is up from an average of about 12,000 a day in recent months, but is only a little over a third of last year’s average of 42,000 passengers a day.
The French Quarter’s landmark restaurants, like Brennan’s on Royal Street, also are expecting a disappointing Mardi Gras.
OpenTable, the restaurant booking app, shows overall reservations for New Orleans restaurants in the past week running about 70% below last year’s levels.
Ralph Brennan, head of the restaurant group that also includes Red Fish Grill and Napoleon House in the French Quarter, said they had opened Brennan’s for brunch on Wednesday and Thursday this week for the first time since the onset of the pandemic in anticipation of a Mardi Gras boost.
“But we really didn’t see any traffic, it was very tame, very calm,” Brennan said. “Normally, on a day like today, we’d have the jazz band playing, there would be satellite bars and people would be swinging from the rafters. It’s very weird.”
Brennan said he supports the city’s and state’s safety efforts in general, but he echoed many business owners in the hospitality sector in voicing frustration about how the measures have been implemented.
“I wish they would have started enforcing the regulations earlier and we wouldn’t have had to do it right before Mardi Gras,” he said. “There are a lot of good operators out there and the frustrating thing is the rules keep changing on us. You can’t run business in two-, three-week intervals.”
Caputo said the stop-start restrictions have really hit the hospitality sector workers, thousands of whom still remain out of work or on short hours.
“It really hurts all our team members who are out of work the next five days and all the tips they would have made is a major financial loss to them,” he said. “That is the sad part.”
The rules from City Hall have backers among residents and some business owners, such as Elna Stokes, second-generation owner of Leah’s Pralines on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter.
She said she’s supportive of the Cantrell’s latest restrictions, despite the loss of business this year.
“I’m 75 years old and have spent my life working in this shop but I’m glad we’re not going to see all those people coming this year,” Stokes said. “Everyone has suffered because of COVID, but if we want to return to the ‘good times’ we’ve got to make it safe for people to come here.”