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Tourists curious about planning vacations to the Big Easy

Cindy Loose and Carol Sottili The Washington Post

It may seem insensitive to think about vacation plans in the wake of the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina. But looked at another way, tourists are the economic lifeblood of many of the gulf coast communities that have been so cruelly inundated by water and whipped by winds.

Those communities soon will begin to struggle to their feet. Tourism eventually will be a tool that will help them stand. Until that day comes, here are answers to some of the questions we’ve been hearing.

Q. I was planning to visit New Orleans this fall. How soon will the city be ready for tourists?

A. Authorities have estimated that it will take one or more months just to empty the city of standing water. Neither private business owners nor government officials have had the opportunity to conduct damage assessment.

“I’d say that to get everything back into shape, to re-create the New Orleans we knew and enjoyed, you’re talking a year, maybe more,” said Louisiana State University professor Jim Richardson.

Q. I’ve heard that the recovery will be quickest downtown and in the French Quarter. True?

A. Most likely, yes. The historic French Quarter has one of the highest elevations in the city, so it suffered less water damage.

Q. How about the Mississippi gulf coast’s biggest tourist draw – floating casinos? Are casinos in New Orleans still standing?

A. Every one of Mississippi’s 13 floating casinos in Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis were seriously damaged or destroyed. Several, including Harrah’s Grand Casino Biloxi and Grand Casino Gulfport, were torn from their moorings and swept hundreds of yards inland. The Hard Rock Biloxi, which was set to open last week, has been seriously damaged.

The destruction of the floating casinos has already sparked discussion among Mississipi legislators about changing the law that prohibits constructing casinos on land.

In and around New Orleans, Harrah’s, Boomtown and Boyd Gaming’s Treasure Chest all reported minor to moderate damage. But “like nearly every other structure in the area, they remain unapproachable other than by boat,” said Wade Duty, executive director of the Casino Association of Louisiana.

Q. I have a ticket to New Orleans for November, but I doubt I’ll want to go, even if the city is accepting visitors. Can I get a refund or change the ticket?

A. If the flight you booked is operating, the airline is not obligated to give you a refund on a nonrefundable ticket, nor is it obligated to waive the usual $100 round-trip change fee, said Bill Mosely, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But the airlines are being flexible about nonrefundable tickets, to varying degrees. At press time, Southwest’s generous options included a refund for certain tickets held to or from New Orleans through Jan. 9. Five airlines – Delta, Northwest, Continental, US Airways and American – were waiving change fees through Oct. 31. United was waiving fees through Sept. 30.

From there, the policies diverge. Some, for example, are including some airports besides New Orleans or offering refunds. Check your airline’s Web site – some allow you to make changes online – or call for details.

Q. How about the cruise lines along the gulf coast? Have schedules been affected?

A. Five cruise lines – Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Delta Queen Steamboat Co. and Riverbarge Excursions – have ships home-ported in New Orleans or Mobile, Ala., for at least part of the year.

Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas and Norwegian’s Sun both do a Western Caribbean itinerary from New Orleans, starting in December and October, respectively. Neither line has announced any changes to those plans.

Q. I put a big deposit on a hotel room in New Orleans. Can I get it back?

A. Of course, you should receive a refund if your hotel isn’t accepting guests. The real test is to come, as hotels reopen in locations that travelers may not consider tourist-ready.

Marriott is waiving late cancellation penalties for guests scheduled to arrive in its New Orleans properties through Thursday, as has Sheraton. The Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which suffered what appears to be serious damage, has notified all guests slated to arrive by Thursday that they cannot be accommodated. Watch for that date to slide forward, since tourists may not even be allowed back to the city by then.

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