Will international flights change the typical New Orleans tourist?


News Wednesday (June 9) that New Orleans has landed a nonstop flight to Frankfurt starting in 2017 marks a key milestone for a city and airport that has lacked a connection to Europe for more than three decades. Is it also a sign the New Orleans is focusing its tourism efforts on attracting not just any tourists, but high-spending, global travelers?

Local tourism and economic officials have long touted the benefits of drawing tourists from around the world. International visitors tend to spend more money and are more likely to explores beyond Bourbon Street. They book longer stays in fancier hotels on nights less popular with domestic travelers.

The Condor Airlines seasonal flight to Frankfurt comes as New Orleans works to push its total visitor count over the pre-Katrina peak of 10.1 million. Last year’s count fell short of that mark, but officials have worked to train public attention on the more than $7 billion in overall tourist spending in 2015, a new record for the city.

Officials continue to tout a goal of attracting more tan 13 million visitors by 2018, the city’s tricentennial. But is the city shifting its tourism focus from quantity to quality?

Mayor Mitch Landrieu was among close to a dozen local officials who gathered Thursday morning at Louis Armstrong International Airport to announce the Condor Airlines flight. A German folk band played in the background, a few members dressed in traditional lederhosen.

Landrieu said the city wants it all; more tourists, both international and domestic, and more spending.

“Whether we hit the 13 million, that’s about building capacity,” Landrieu said. “It’s a very complicated thing, but we’re trying to do all of it.”

Landrieu said the bottom line is more visitors are coming to New Orleans. The Condor flight adds to that growth and puts the city closer to the 13 million goal, he said.

“It’s good to aim high,” Landrieu said. “It’s better than not aiming at all.”

Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said part of the new approach is to attract “a more sophisticated traveler and a traveler with more disposable income to spend.” That includes the thousands of German travelers who will be flying in nonstop from Frankfurt.

Perry, part of the team that helped land the new nonstop flight, noted the announcement was purposely timed a week before New Orleans hosts IPW, an annual travel industry convention that draws travel buyers from around the world.

New Orleans will be working hard to sell to the international tourism market, he said, adding the city has more than 400 appointments with overseas buyers who steer international tourists to U.S. destinations.

The Condor flight is a “big symbolic hurdle to get over” to make New Orleans a more attractive brand overseas, he said.

Condor is set to begin nonstop flights to Frankfurt in May 2017. Flights will run twice a week through September. Economy tickets start at $399 one-way.

Titus Johnson, vice president for Condor overseeing the North American and Caribbean regions, said there is room to expand service depending on how well the New Orleans flights do. He noted Condor has grown service from twice-weekly seasonal flights in other U.S. cities, including year-round service in Seattle and four-day seasonal service in Portland, Ore.

“We need passengers from Louisiana and New Orleans,” Johnson said. “Let’s make it happen.”

Efforts to draw an international nonstop flight started in earnest about five years ago. Those leading the effort included Perry, Greg Rusovich, a civic leader and CEO of Transoceanic Development, a New Orleans logistical firm, Iftikhar Ahmad, aviation director at ArmstrongAirport, and Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc.

Rusovich said the Frankfurt flight isn’t just about tourism; it’s also a big boost for local business.

He noted Frankfurt is one the major hubs in Europe. Condor alone offers 120 flights from Frankfurt to the rest of Europe as well as connections to Asia. A nonstop flight is “really a recruitment tool for investment to come in,” he said.

Leaders are optimistic the Condor flight will encourage other airlines to add nonstop service to Europe. A direct connection to London remains highly sought after. British Airways chose San Jose, Calif. over New Orleans for a nonstop from London last August. Multiple leaders at the Wednesday press conference said talks for a London flight are ongoing but would not say much more.

Hecht said capacity remains a hurdle. Louis Armstrong is the 37th largest airport in the country, with 54 nonstop flights including nonstop service to five international cities. Today’s international hub airports rank within the top 32 largest airports.

“That’s a very difficult leap to make,” Hecht said.

The $807 million North Terminal now under construction is meant to change that. Ahmad said features such as a single security checkpoint and more gate-side concessions make a difference in whether airlines choose to add a new destination.

Condor Airlines is billed as a leisure travel airline, catering to tourists on vacation rather than business travelers. It remains to be seen whether New Orleans can attract routes from airlines with heavier business travel.

Hecht said the Frankfurt flight helps grease the skids for future deals.

“With every new airline that arrives, getting the next one does that get that much easier,” Hecht said.

That means New Orleans tourism is likely to be increasingly trained on overseas markets in years to come. Perry said the CVB is geared up to invest heavily in cultivating the city’s international reach. IPW, which runs June 18-22, is a “launching point,” he said.

“This flight is important for our brand,” Perry said. “We are now connected again to Europe.”

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