NEW ORLEANS – Mark Twain's writings often centered on a fascination with Mississippi River steamboats, which is the reason British tourist Nicola Collins recently took a voyage on the Natchez, one of only five true steam-powered sternwheelers operating in North America.
"It reminds me of Huckleberry Finn," Collins said as the Natchez began is two-hour journey on the river from its dock at the French Quarter. "It's a tradition, so you have to do it."
For New Orleans Steamboat Co., visitors curious about a rich part of the city's past are more than welcome as the tourist industry continues to try to rebound from Hurricane Katrina.
Before the storm, the Natchez and the John James Audubon, the company's modern river cruise vessel, drew about 450,000 passengers a year, said Gordon Stevens, the company's chief executive officer. The Natchez does a two-hour, 15-mile roundtrip cruise downriver, while the Audubon has a 45-minute, seven-mile cruise between the Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Zoo — both big tourist attractions.
A year after Katrina, the two boats have regained about 35 percent of their pre-storm customers. The company, based on advance bookings, expects that to reach 75 percent late in 2007 and return to normal the following year, he said.
"We're seeing the bookings return," Stevens said. "We're looking forward to 2007."
Neither boat, both of which were evacuated upriver as Katrina neared, sustained storm damage. The company's dockside facilities escaped major damage, although a storage warehouse was looted.
"It could have been much worse," Stevens said. "The real damage came with the slow tourism."
An estimated 10 million visitors came to the city in 2004 and the tourism business was on track to beat that number in 2005 before Katrina hit, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. But officials estimate tourism was down by about half during the summer as Americans continued to see images of destruction even though many tourist attractions are open.
Katrina at least temporarily made the Natchez, which first sailed in 1975, the city's only genuine steam sternwheeler.
Three vessels that offer days-long cruises — the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and American Queen, owned by Newport Beach, Calif.-based Ambassadors International Inc. — were not in the city at the time of Katrina and don't plan to return until 2007, giving tourism time to build back up.
For now, the 265-foot-long Natchez is making 10 to 12 cruises per week, compared with the normal 21 voyages. The 124-foot-long Aubudon is making 16 cruises a week, compared with 28 before the storm. The company's payroll has been cut from 190 to 70, making a leaner operation that can survive slow times, Stevens said.
On a recent afternoon, Collins and friend Kristy Mahon joined about 90 other passengers for the Natchez's cruise, which takes visitors by through the Port of New Orleans and offers a glimpse of the city's Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, both wiped out by Katrina. Before the storm, such a cruise would typically draw 300 to 500 passengers.
"It's an area where I've always wanted to visit," Mahon said. "Since I've been little, I've wanted to come here and take a boat on the river."
One of chief attractions is the Natchez's steam calliope that can be heard far up and down the river. Debbie Fagnano first played the vessel's calliope in 1989 and for 17 years has hit the keyboards before and, occasionally, during the cruises.
Fagnano remembers when the boat returned to New Orleans from its Katrina exile, in early October 2005. She jumped on for the last few miles to play and the wail of the calliope sounded up and down the largely still-vacant waterfront, carrying into the city.
"People told me that the first time they heard the calliope, they knew things would be OK," Fagnano said.
Like many of the company's employees, Fagnano lost her house in Katrina. Some crew members, including the vessel's veteran master, Steve Nicoulin, slept aboard for nearly three months. Nicoulin said he started his career as a "long-haired deck hand" on the Natchez in 1975 and never left. He doesn't intend to now.
"New Orleans is only here because there is a river," Nicoulin said. "People come to the river as much as they come to Bourbon Street."
Tourism is vital to the Natchez, with 90 percent of its passengers coming from out of town — although Fagnano said she knows a local couple that sails once a month "to make sure we stay in business." The ship also is enjoying its share of a recent post-Katrina boom in marriages, Stevens said.
"We did a lot of weddings before and we're doing even more now," he said.
With a normally busy October expected to start slow for tourism in New Orleans, the Natchez will be leaving in late September for Cincinnati's Tall Stacks Festival that will feature cruises on 15 paddlewheelers. Stevens said the Natchez already is fully booked for its first-ever appearance at the event, which is held every three or four years.
Then, the city's convention business is expected to begin pumping in a sizable number of visitors again next year.
"I think the worst time is behind us," Stevens said. "We're looking very positively at not only the future, but right now."