tampabay.com

Revelers begin packing New Orleans

Officials expect 700,000 to attend Mardi Gras celebrations as the city's recovery continues.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published February 18, 2007


NEW ORLEANS - Carnival revelers streamed into the city Saturday - and Mardi Gras organizers hoped to throw such a fantastic party that visitors would vow to return to this tourist-dependent city again.

Tourism officials expect at least as many visitors as last year, 700,000, to come for the annual celebration. It's the second time the event has been held since Hurricane Katrina struck.

"It's great, isn't it?" said Kelly Schulz, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. "This is a very big deal."

Parades are planned each day, leading to Fat Tuesday. Some paradegoers began staking out prime spots to see the elaborate processionals and perhaps even glimpse a celebrity.

The Krewe of Endymion, one of Carnival's best known groups, was set to march Saturday afternoon with American Idol winner Taylor Hicks in the lead. The salt-and-pepper-haired singer was to perform later that evening with Al Green and Journey at Endymion's sold-out ball at the Superdome.

Hicks said he got a little advice from krewe members about what to do with the beads: "They told me to throw them 'til it hurts," he said. "Which is what I plan on doing."

Other celebrities set to participate in weekend parades included actor James Gandolfini and members of the New Orleans Saints football team.

New Orleans is slowly recovering from Katrina, the signs of which are still obvious in swaths of the city but largely unnoticeable to those who stay in the touristy French Quarter and central business district.

For local officials, the festivities are a chance for New Orleans to get an economic boost; many of the city's small businesses have struggled since Katrina.

Darryl Daquin, an Endymion member, said there's a great sense of pride in putting on a good show for the people. Last year, he said many people thought staging Carnival was frivolous.

"But this was a bright spot in many people's misery," he said. "You have to understand how important this is to the city's culture."

One of the hopes this year, he said, is to show the city can host a tourism event like this.

Before the storm, about a million visitors came here over the four days culminating on Fat Tuesday, bringing about $250-million to New Orleans, Schulz said.