As Tropical Storm Gustav approaches, the Gulf Coast's tourism industry is gearing up for the key holiday weekend while keeping a wary eye on the storm. Hotels are setting aside rooms for emergency personnel, and Amtrak and Greyhound are altering service.
Baton Rouge, 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, she explained.
The Sheraton New Orleans, one of very few hotels that stayed open during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and their aftermath in 2005, is prepared to house emergency personnel in roughly 200 of its 1,100 rooms.
Tommy Morel, director of sales and marketing of the New Orleans region for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, said many of the hotel's staff have volunteered to stay and ride out the storm in the event of an evacuation order in New Orleans.
He noted that the hotel has only had a few cancellations so far. "We gladly let them cancel," he said.
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. 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.
Airlines were loosening cancellation policies and fees. But with planes routinely filling more than 80% of seats on average, rebooking an alternate flight will be tricky, 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 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 of the days of their trip.
But the Priceline refunds 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.
Amtrak commuter train service is being suspended to New Orleans as four major freight railroads redirect traffic away from New Orleans ahead of the storm.
Amtrak's Sunset Limited service from Los Angeles to New Orleans will end in San Antonio, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. But Amtrak, through a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will transport evacuees to Jackson, Miss. as needed, Magliari said.
Greyhound Lines Inc. will stop operating out of its main terminal in New Orleans about 7 p.m Central time Friday, and operations will move to Baton Rouge, spokeswoman Abby Wambaugh said. The federal Department of Homeland Security will take over the city-owned site, while the carrier has buses on standby in San Antonio.
Many in the industry hope Gulf Coast vacationers will stick with their plans this weekend. Louisiana State University's football team still aims to kick off against Appalachian State in Baton Rouge Saturday.
"With a sunny and clear forecast for the weekend, we hope to have a normal Labor Day as people arrive on Friday evening, stay through the weekend and depart on Monday morning," said Herb Malone, president and chief executive of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"As a tourism community at this point, 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."