As Hurricane Gustav approaches, the Gulf Coast's tourism industry is gearing up for the key holiday weekend while keeping a wary eye on the storm.
The weekend's Southern Decadence gay pride festival in New Orleans, which drew 120,000 people last year, is expected to go on as planned, and Louisiana State University's football team still aims to kick off against Appalachian State in Baton Rouge today.
“We are operating business as usual,” said Kelly Schulz, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We've not seen any mass cancellations.”
A hurricane obviously can damage hotels in its path, but those in surrounding areas can see a boost as relief and construction workers move into the area, said Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Robert LaFleur.
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In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans three years ago Friday, hotels also were used as long-term housing for people who had lost their homes.
“In a very sort of counterintuitive way, it was a net benefit for the hotels in the area because of storm displacement and temporary housing,” LaFleur said. “It's not the way you want to boost your business, but unfortunately it's the reality.”
Baton Rouge, which is one hour inland from New Orleans, is virtually sold out, said Theresa Overby, a spokeswoman for the Baton Rouge Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. First responders, government agencies and contractors have booked nearly all the available rooms not already taken by people involved in and watching the LSU game.
A tennis tournament planned for this weekend was rescheduled, freeing up a couple hundred rooms that were snapped up within minutes, Overby said.
She said the city is now looking for space in apartment buildings to meet demand for lodging.
Coastal residents evacuating their homes are being directed farther north.
“We just don't have the inventory,” Overby said of hotels in her area.
Olivier House Hotel Manager Bobby Danner said his small, family-owned hotel in the city's French Quarter has received only a few cancellation requests but more worried phone calls. The hotel is relaxing its cancellation policy, he said.
Travel booking site Orbitz has e-mailed 650 travelers warning them about Gustav and expects to contact more over the weekend.
Spokeswoman Jeanenne Diefendorf said threatening storms often prompt travelers to shift bookings elsewhere, though overall bookings don't generally drop.
“When we see something like this happen earlier in the week, people will tend to look at other places, other destinations that aren't going to be affected,” Diefendorf said.
With airlines now routinely filling more than 80 percent of seats on average – and many flights full – rebooking an alternate flight will be trickier, said Ed Perkins, a contributing editor to smartertravel.com.
“Given the flight cutbacks and high load factors, you may have a heck of a tough time finding a substitute trip that quickly,” he said.
So-called “weather waivers” can help travelers who are stuck with tickets to a storm zone, Perkins said.
He noted that major air service to New Orleans was out for some three weeks after Katrina.
In an attempt to take the sting out of bad weather, Priceline.com has offered insurance-backed refunds since June for buyers of its vacation packages who see more than one-half inch of rain on more than half the days of their trip.
The refunds are automatic but don't apply to airfare and hotels booked separately, said spokesman Brian Ek.
By Friday, no refunds had been issued for Gustav, which was moving across the Caribbean, he said.