NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Communities around the state - from New Orleans to Natchitoches - are counting on tourism in the final few weeks of the year to boost local businesses and generate tax revenue. Thousands of visitors are pouring into New Orleans to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday and the 40th annual Bayou Classic football game between Grambling State University and Southern University.
Less than a month later, the city will host the New Orleans Bowl, which pits the Sun Belt Conference against Conference USA.
Meanwhile, the cities of Alexandria, Pineville, Minden, Monroe, West Monroe, Natchitoches, Shreveport and Bossier City hope their Holiday Trail of Lights continues pushing money into their economies. Natchitoches, established in 1714, celebrates the 87th annual Festival of Lights - a key event for city businesses. "Our hotels are filled," said Lee Waskom, executive director of Natchitoches' Historic Business District Association, which organizes the Festival of Lights held over six weekends.
"Our restaurants are busy. Our retail businesses rely on this season to help carry them through the rest of the year." Kickoff for Saturday's Bayou Classic is at 1:30 p.m., and the celebration also includes a health expo, golf tournament, career fair, the annual Battle of the Bands and a Mardi Gras-style Thanksgiving Day parade.
American Idol finalist Burnell Taylor of New Orleans will serve as parade grand marshal and sing the national anthem before the game. Comedian and actor Kevin Hart will participate in a halftime presentation and rapper Doug E. Fresh will perform during pre-game festivities. "This is an unbelievable event ... this checks so many boxes for us," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a news conference this week welcoming the two schools to the city.
"The economic impact of this event is just huge every year." Organizers said the combined weekend of activities draws more than 200,000 visitors each year and provides a $50 million economic impact to New Orleans. Hotel occupancy typically hits more than 90 percent, officials said. "The growing list of activities surrounding the event means more people in the city for longer periods of time, spending more on food and entertainment and other things," said Kelly Schulz, vice president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Schulz said the Bayou Classic also provides valuable advertising for the city since the game is televised nationally and commercial campaigns promoting New Orleans often run during the broadcast.
"It's great exposure for us," she said. "Hopefully people will see something that makes them want to come to New Orleans." The game's crowds ultimately mean spillover for other holiday promotions including free Christmas concerts at St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter as well as Garden District home tours sponsored by the Preservation Resource Center. The R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl is held on the first day of college football's post-season. This year's game is scheduled Dec. 21. "I'm glad to say the New Orleans Bowl has become a regular fixture on the city's calendar," said Billy Ferrante, executive director of the bowl that was first played in 2001.
Ferrante said the bowl's economic impact has ranged from $15 million to $25 million a year. Last year's game between the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and East Carolina drew about 48,000 people, he said. In north Louisiana, the AdvoCare V100 Bowl will be played Dec. 31 at Shreveport's Independence Stadium. Cole Vosbury, a Shreveport native and contestant on NBC's "The Voice," will sing the National Anthem at this year's bowl featuring teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference.
Arlene Gould, interim director of the Natchitoches Parish Tourism Commission, said its Festival of Lights includes 45 nights of Christmas lights. "This year's celebration is our kickoff to the city's tri-centennial, which will be celebrated in 2014," she said. Gould said it's hard to track participation because it's spread over six weeks.
"People just come and go and it's hard to keep up," she said. "They come by the busloads to see the lights or the fireworks." Waskom, of the business association in Natchitoches, said the event is very important to local businesses. "If it wasn't for the festival, most of them would pack up and fold," he said. "They really rely on this season to consider it a successful year. If the Christmas season failed, it would be financial ruin for some if not all of them." Last year, festival day - the only day that's ticketed and countable - drew an estimated 50,000 people, Waskom said. "They come from all over including Arkansas and east Texas. We get may 10,000 to 15,000 each weekend.