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Jul 2, 2010 5:50 AM by Chris Welty

Essence Fest Helps Sustain New Orleans Amid Spill

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 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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