Great Comeback Cities For Travel

comeback cities - Detroit love
Flickr, Michigan Municipal League

Recently, the former automotive boomtown of Detroit made history by filing for bankruptcy, making it an easy butt of jokes on Twitter and in the news. However, Motown has also been making strides to become America’s great comeback city, with artists and entrepreneurs lured by cheap rents, and innovative projects happening all over town (disclosure: I’m a big fan of the city, and so is the New York TimesFrank Bruni). Detroit has more than a few great things going for it, including architecture, museums and sports, and tourist dollars could go a long way in helping the city recover. Can it become a tourist destination again?

Some of the top tourist destinations in the world were once no-go zones for travelers, suffering from financial crises, war, natural disasters and rampant crime. Here are a few of our favorite comeback cities:Berlin: One of the world’s most resilient cities, Berlin has been through war, occupation and one gigantic divide, and come back to thrive. In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, East Berlin in particular has become a hipster mecca, due to some of the lowest prices in western Europe for nightlife and a vibrant art and design scene. While not everyone welcomes the gentrification, the German capital is continuing to gain millions of foreign tourists each year.

Buenos Aires: A mix of hyperinflation, government corruption and mounting debt led to riots and an economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country has stabilized and the peso value has risen, but it’s affordability has made it increasingly attractive to travelers in the last ten years, making it the No. 1 tourism destination in South America. Buenos Aires is opening more boutique hotels each year, ensuring a place every year on lists such as Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of new hotels.

New Orleans: A longtime favorite for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, along with events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, New Orleans was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tourism is the biggest source of employment in the city and a major factor to its economy, and the disaster made visitor numbers plummet. Louisiana’s recovery has been slow but steady, and major infrastructure improvements brought on by this year’s “Super Gras” have helped the Big Easy come back.

New York City: Visitors to the Big Apple have topped 50 million, spending billions of dollars in the city annually. While New York has never suffered from lack of tourists, the 1980s crack epidemic and surge in crime gave it an image of being a violent, dirty and dangerous city and visitor numbers dipped. Like Detroit, it also faced possible bankruptcy in 1975 and President Ford was infamously (mis)quoted to tell NYC to “drop dead.” The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused another slowdown in visitors, but it’s now one of the safest, most visited cities in the world.

Tokyo: While Tokyo was not as devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as other parts of Japan, it definitely felt the hurt with a sharp decline in tourism, major damage to national infrastructure, and radiation concerns. Foreign visitors are now exceeding the pre-disaster levels, though seismologists worry that an even bigger earthquake is due to hit Tokyo.

An honorable mention must go to the countries in the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia and the cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the popularity of the Dalmatian coast as a beach destination, or the battle-scarred Serbian capital as a nightlife hotspot? They aren’t quite seeing the same tourism numbers as the destinations above, but they should be on your travel radar. Istanbul and Beirut are also favorites for their many comebacks and reinventions, though the effects from current events are already being seen in the local tourism industries.

What are your favorite “comeback cities”?

New Orleans Prepares For ‘Super Gras’ 2013

girl preparing for mardi gras in new orleans 2013Visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras has never been for the faint of heart. But with the city set to host the Super Bowl just nine days before Fat Tuesday, locals believe that this year’s “Super Gras” celebration might be the city’s biggest party ever. New Orleans has spent $1.3 billion on infrastructure improvements in the run up to the Super Bowl according to CNN, and USA Today estimates that the city will see a $1 billion spike in economic activity as a result of the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras.
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The pre-Lent partying culminates on Fat Tuesday, which falls on February 12 this year, but there are dozens of parades, organized by carnival krewes, balls and parties in the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday. We spoke to Laura Martone, a New Orleans native and author of the recently released “Moon Handbook to New Orleans,” to get a flavor of what New Orleans is like during Mardi Gras.


Laura MartoneFor some, Mardi Gras is synonymous with debauchery – beads, flashing and binge drinking, among other things. Has all of that been going on for decades?

I’m 36 and all of that has been happening since I was a little kid. My mom tells me that it used to be more family friendly. People throw beads down to women and men who are flashing. I have never done that. My dignity is worth more than some plastic beads. But a lot of the parades are more family friendly and you don’t see much flashing at those events.

I assume 99% of the women who are flashing are tourists?

Probably. The thing that used to fascinate me as a kid was seeing the cops taking pictures of the women flashing. No one was getting ticketed for indecent exposure because the cops were too busy taking pictures.

woman flashing her breasts at mardi gras new orleansThe cops don’t still take photos of women flashing, do they?

I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past them.

You live in the French Quarter. Do New Orleans natives dread Mardi Gras because the city is invaded by tourists?

A lot of my friends are leaving town, and when I was growing up, my mom would take me to some of the parades but even she didn’t love it. As an adult, you kind of dread the mayhem. You get so many drunken crowds; people are here to party more than for the culture. This year is the perfect storm because we have the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras at the same time. It’s total mayhem.

But, while I know plenty of people that flee the city during one of the busiest times of the year, there are many, many more that embrace the occasion. People host Mardi Gras parties, flock to as many parades as possible, and, sometimes even spring for tickets to one of the big balls. Most New Orleanians don’t need a reason to let the good times roll.

What’s it like to live in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras? Are people vomiting and peeing in the streets?

Oh yeah, but sadly you see that here throughout the year. It’s just a bit more during Mardi Gras. Sometimes I just do not want to be on Bourbon Street. I’d rather walk on Royal Street, where you can still get the French Quarter atmosphere without being inundated by hawkers and drunks. But sometimes it is fun to walk down Bourbon Street and just feel the energy. Most people are having a really good time.

Do most of the tourists just turn up around Fat Tuesday or well before then?

The big crowds come for the last weekend because that’s when all the major super krewes run. Endymion is on Saturday night and Bacchus is Sunday night, and Monday is Orpheus. Orpheus is the one started by Harry Connick, Jr. and it has a music theme. And then on Mardi Gras Day, you have a ton of parades. The major ones are Rex, which is the king of Mardi Gras, and Zulu, that’s the African-American one that’s been around since the early 1900s. They pass out coconuts and it’s a little crazy.


When does the Mardi Gras season start?

Technically, it starts on January 6, Epiphany. But the parade season is usually the two weeks before Mardi Gras Day. The dates change every year, depending on when Easter is. Usually right after Christmas, we take down our Christmas decorations and put up our Mardi Gras decorations.

What advice do you have for first-time Mardi Gras visitors?

If they’ve never been before, coming on Mardi Gras weekend is a big deal because that’s when the super krewes roll. You get the celebrity grand marshals and the big floats and endless marching bands and that kind of stuff. But for people who just want to get a taste of the season, there are parades going on all the time. On Sunday, for example, there’s the Krewe of Barkus – it’s the dog parade and it’s really crazy.

It’s tough to get a room in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras. What other neighborhoods should people look into?

I don’t always encourage people to stay in the French Quarter. The French Quarter hotels tend to be a lot pricier and it’s harder to get rooms. The two neighborhoods on either side of the French Quarter – the Central Business District (CBD) and the Faubourg Marigny – are really good. CBD has a lot of chains so those places will be more reasonably priced. Faubourg Marigny has more intimate bed-and-breakfasts and it’s a little funkier, so it’s kind of a good New Orleans experience. It’s cheaper than the French Quarter but it’s still within walking distance.


And the Garden District?

That’s another good choice and it’s accessible via the St. Charles streetcar but because of the Super Bowl, everything is in disarray because they were repairing that line. But it’s still pretty easy to get from the Garden District to the heart of the city. Uptown is also a good choice. It has a combination of chain hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.

mardi gras beads new orleansWhat other tips do you have for first-time visitors?

New Orleans isn’t dangerous in the same way Rio is. But still, with the crowds and alcohol, you want to be careful. Travel in pairs. Watch out for pickpockets. People worry about the crime situation in New Orleans but just be careful where you go. The Quarter itself is relatively safe because there’s a big police presence. But right across Rampart Street, which borders one side of the quarter, you’re in Tremé, which is not very safe. Tourists wander off the beaten path when they’re drunk and that’s when they get mugged. Try to stay in places where you see plenty of people, and when in doubt about an area, just ask someone. Natives are very friendly here.

Tourists come here and they leave their inhibitions behind. People think that anything that happens here, stays here but it can be safe if you have your wits about you.

For those who want to experience Mardi Gras but are a little intimidated by the crowds and craziness in New Orleans, are there alternatives nearby?

There are parades in Metairie, which is a suburb of New Orleans, Slidell, which is another suburb that is much more family friendly. And beyond here, Lafayette has a big Mardi Gras celebration of its own. It’s about 2-1/2 to 3 hours away and it has a more Cajun vibe. And outside Louisiana, Mobile has a great Mardi Gras and it’s also pretty family friendly.

People do crazy things to get beads at Mardi Gras but these things are made in China. Why not just buy them?

Right, you can buy them wholesale. They are dirt-cheap, so it doesn’t make that much sense to me to expose myself to get them.

[Photo credits: Laura Martone, Infrogmation, Toast to Life, Mark Gstohl, Derek Bridges, and Tulane Public Relations on Flickr]

The New New Orleans: Finally, Louis Armstrong Plays Again

North Rampart Street forms the western border of New Orleans‘ French Quarter. On one side, streets named St. Louis, St. Peter and Dumaine lead to picturesque homes, elegant restaurants and rowdy bars. On the other side of Rampart sits a park that’s been both feared and beloved by residents and visitors, avoided by some, a lifeline for others.

Louis Armstrong Park has been through a series of trials in the years since Hurricane Katrina. Named for one of the city’s most famous musical sons, the park that was supposed to be a tribute instead became something to avoid.

Although it houses a historic landmark, Congo Square, where slaves came to socialize and share African rhythms, many tourists never saw it, or were told not to set foot inside. Fences kept many out, including residents of the Treme neighborhood nearby.

The worst insult came in summer 2010, when a botched facelift went awry and a contractor cracked the toe of the Louis Armstrong statue. Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered work to stop and the park was closed. The city discovered newly poured sidewalks were cracked, curbs and manholes damaged, and a sprinkler system was improperly installed. Even one of the park’s soaring palm trees was knocked down.

A new contractor was found, work began anew, and finally, last year, Louis Armstrong Park came back to life, a symbol of the New New Orleans that’s evolved since the storm.

%Gallery-170746%Although the 32-acre space is rarely crowded on weekdays, it’s become a stop for visiting tour groups, like a bunch of French teenagers who posed for pictures and generally ignored a guide trying to explain the site’s historic importance.

McKenzie Coco, a new resident of the French Quarter, came to the park with her husband recently to walk their three dogs. “I always felt sad that it wasn’t being utilized,” Coco said. Now, “it’s well-lit, and safe, and it’s a real positive place for the neighborhood.”

Nobody was happier to see the park return than Ben Harwood and Emanuel Lain, the co-founders of People United For Armstrong Park.

Over the past few years, Harwood and Lain have spearheaded community efforts to bring the park back up to life. With almost no corporate backing, and using volunteers, the pair put together a summer concert series that drew 50,000 people to Armstrong Park. They just held a benefit for the concert series, and plan to expand it by more than double for 2013.

Harwood, a native of Detroit who lives in Treme, and Lain, who grew up in New Orlean’s ninth ward but who attended church near the park, met when Lain knocked on Harwood’s door to ask what should be done with the Municipal Auditorium, which sits within the park.

Quickly, the conversation turned to the closed park, and what might be done to help it. Although they were bent on seeing it come back to life, they say their efforts to rehabilitate the park were not always greeted with warmth by its neighbors.

Although they surveyed several thousand residents, and held two public meetings, “some people told us to stop doing it. This was their park,” Harwood recalls. “We had to be bullheaded, and do what had to be done.”

Disaster funds, which are less restrictive than federal block grants, were available, but it seemed like other projects in New Orleans had a much higher priority, and the park was not listed on city officials’ priority list. “Basically, it seemed like the city was just going to keep the park locked, and that was it.”

The organizers gathered 2,000 signatures demanding that the park be reopened, put together a second line parade that stretched from Congo Square to City Hall, and essentially drove home their point that the park was important to the people who lived in New Orleans. “We did a lot of knife-twisting, using the media, to get the city to admit that this park existed,” he said.

Once work got underway, the PULAP group got an unexpected surge of support when contractors cracked the Armstrong statue. “People were really pissed,” Harwood recalls. There was lingering frustration over the fact that a portion of the park remained fenced in, despite all the renovation work that’s taken place.

Although the park now gleams under streetlights in the evening, Lain says there is more to be done to bring the park back to the way it was when he was young. “Those lagoons used to be clean enough to swim in,” he says, gesturing to the ponds on the north side of the park. He and Harwood have numerous ideas, beyond the concert series, to attract more visitors, whether locals or tourists.

Wireless Internet, like the service available in New York’s Bryant Park, could guarantee users all day long, and help people in the neighborhood who don’t have Web access. Food trucks and coffee stands might attract city workers who have few affordable choices. The organizers would like to see the park used by school bands and other young musicians, who could earn their performance stripes by playing traditional New Orleans jazz.

But, for now, says Lain, the improvements will come one step at a time. “This park needed a champion and our organization is just that,” Lain said.

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]

New Orleans Roadfood Festival rolls in March 24-25

new orleans foodThat New Orleans is a food town is no secret. What I just discovered, however, is that it’s host to a food festival spawned by one of my favorite pastimes ever: road food (and no, I’m not referring to this kind). Way back in the day, when I was a wee college student, I discovered the late, great Gourmet magazine, and became obsessed with “Roadfood,” a column (now a website) written by the road-trippin’, big-eatin’ couple Jane and Michael Stern.

In every issue, the Sterns would choose a micro-region of the U.S. and a local specialty on which to focus their column. Each month, I read about chicken and dumplings in Indiana, pasties from Montana, green chile from El Rito, New Mexico, or barbecue from Owensboro, Kentucky. Then I’d wipe the drool off of the pages and stash each article away in a manila folder to be saved for future road trips, both real and imagined.

Apparently, nearly half a decade ago, while I was lost in some “best roadside diner biscuit” reverie, the Sterns helped create the New Orleans Roadfood Festival. The 4th annual food fiesta will be held March 24-25 in the city’s historic French Market. It will provide a showcase for over 30 restaurants across the country, which will serve the dishes that made them famous. Attendees will be able to street-feast upon Texas and Memphis barbecue, Tucson’s best tamales, custard from upstate New York, Cajun and Creole delicacies from across Louisiana, and many other regional culinary specialties. There will also be cooking demos, live music, a beignet-eating contest for the N.O. Fire Department, and a kickoff party featuring the Sterns, local chefs, and noted cookbook author Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

And get this: admission to the festival is free. You’ll still have to pay for those good eats, but a portion of the proceeds will benefit Cafe Reconcile, a non-profit restaurant that uses innovative strategies to provide life skills and job training to youth from at-risk communities in area. Just in case you need a guilt-free reason to indulge. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

How to Fight a Food Coma and Treat Indigestion

[Photo credit: Flickr user Adam Melancon]

Eat while traveling on cuisine-focused adventures

eat while travelingWhat we eat while traveling has always been a big part of a memorable trip. A recent survey by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism says 71% of Americans participated in at least one culinary activity while on an out-of-town trip and that activity was one of the most significant travel experiences of the vacation. Now, cuisine-focused adventures offered by travel agencies are making menus much more than a souvenir.

“With interest in local cuisines growing thanks to the success of popular television shows like the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, gastronomic adventures are overtaking itineraries among gourmets and casual diners alike,” said travel service company Amadeus in a recent newsletter.

Noting trending travel requests and getting the information out to travel agencies who want to be prepared with their offerings, Amadeus sent along information about a variety of food-oriented travel packages.

Taste-full tours
Travel agencies are creating itineraries that include tours of wineries, food and wine events, festivals, cooking classes, cruises with guest chefs and more so travelers can experience the unique flavor of a particular geographic region or city.

Learn to cook on a cruise
On cruise lines, dining has always been a big part of the experience. Now, many lines have gone beyond buffets to offer culinary-themed voyages. Holland America’s Culinary Arts Center and Oceania Cruises’ Bon Appetit Culinary Center are floating cooking schools where passengers get up-close and personal instruction from chefs on the ship.

A side order of history
“Culinary tourism offers foodies a taste of history with experiences such as the Tasting Tour of the French Quarter in which the rich New Orleans food culture comes alive,”adds Amadeus. “After experiencing a historical walking tour, travelers visit the city’s famous eateries such as Antoine’s and Tujague’s, both established in the 1800s.”

Chocoholics unite
Die-hard chocolate addicts will want to experience the Swiss Chocolate Train and visit the Cailler-Nestle factory and tasting room at Broc, Switzerland. In the U.S., life doesn’t get much sweeter than the town of Hershey, Pa., or the Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory in San Francisco.

Cooking on all burners
Culinary travelers want to take home practical knowledge of how to prepare the foods they’ve discovered and can sign up for cooking classes, such as the weeklong Culinary and Art Adventure in Provence with Chef Philippe Gion. Participants go home with a personalized cookbook of dishes they’ve learned during the week.

Trips and tours with special, focused themes like the food-oriented travel options listed here won’t be found on a click-to-buy website. A qualified travel agency, specializing in food-oriented travel packages is the place to look for these and other themed travel options.


Cooking School of Rancho La Puerta in Mexico

Flickr photo by Jeff Kubina