"Happy Mardi Gras!" is what's been enthusiastically shouted across the streets of New Orleans the past couple of weeks. Well, there's that and "Throw me something, Mister!" It's Mardi Gras season—a time of king cakes, wild and crazy Bourbon Street, and extravagant parades that include musicians, dancers, and colorful floats filled with masked locals who throw shiny plastic beads and trinkets to excited crowds. Though it may seem like a haze of decadence and chaos spanning two weeks in New Orleans, a lot of planning and money from locals and tourists alike goes into this lively time of year. More than a million people pack the city's streets during the two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras day, also known as Fat Tuesday (which falls on March 4 this year). So, what does Mardi Gras mean to the local economy?
In 2009, the Carnival Krewe Civic Foundation Inc. commissioned a biennial study of the economic impact of Mardi Gras. Tulane University economics professor Toni Weiss prepared the 2009 and 2011 reports. However, in 2013, New Orleans hosted the Super Bowl during Mardi Gras season, making it difficult to separate the economic effects of the two events. Therefore, the next study will reflect 2014 data.
According to the 2011 report, the economic impact on the city was $300 million, accounting for 1.5 percent of New Orleans's gross domestic product. It's worth noting that this figure is likely understated as it does not include incremental restaurant business, airport usage, or any businesses' fixed investment. It may also underestimate local citizens' Mardi Gras–related spending. Weiss evaluated seven main categories in the study: lodging and nonlodging, food and alcohol, merchandise, Mardi Gras–themed tours, Krewes (organizations of revelers who put on the parades, host Mardi Gras balls, and participate in social events throughout the year), Krewe members (the aforementioned revelers who spend their own money on the events), and the city government. Direct expenditures from these categories during the 2011 Mardi Gras season were an estimated $144 million.
So where did the other $156 million come from? According to Weiss, the Mardi Gras "franchise" the city created accounts for the difference. It includes an extensive infrastructure of lodging, food and drinking establishments, retail shops selling themed merchandise, and other factors from which other events and businesses (for example, conventions unrelated to Mardi Gras specifically) could benefit. The net fiscal benefit to the city was more than $13 million, or a return of $8.45 for every city dollar spent.
If you ask me, that's a pretty sizable return on investment—enough to fatten the city's wallet quite a bit.
Weiss's team will begin collecting data on the 2014 Mardi Gras season in a couple of weeks, and I look forward to seeing what the new results show.
By Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed's New Orleans Branch