By Letitia Stein and Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Eight days after Hurricane Katrina struck, food critic Tom Fitzmorris was asked how many of the 800 or so restaurants in storm-ravaged New Orleans were open. His answer was zero.
A decade later, he marvels at the city's culinary renaissance, a major draw for the 9.5 million tourists who visited last year. With more than 1,400 restaurants now open for business in the metropolitan area, it is easy to find the po'boy sandwiches, gumbo and other Creole dishes that have made the region famous.
The dining boom reflects a remarkable bounce-back for the travel industry, an economic pillar of the city that took the brunt of the costliest storm in U.S. history when Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005.
"If the restaurants hadn't come back, the tourism might not have come back," said Fitzmorris, who has hosted a radio talk show about the city's cuisine for nearly three decades and writes a newsletter called the New Orleans Menu (nomenu.com).
The city's historic French Quarter, a world-renowned magnet for those looking for a good party, has become more enticing than ever after its first significant infrastructure upgrade in decades.
Bourbon Street, the French Quarter's most celebrated thoroughfare, is again filled with strolling tourists carrying brimming cups of the city's signature cocktail, a fruity concoction called the hurricane.
"The city hasn't changed," said Heim Aotra of Sarasota, Florida, who along with his wife had visited a year before Katrina. "You expect that you would see more devastation, but you don't."
To be sure, boarded-up houses and overgrown lots remain common sights in some of the poorest neighborhoods, a sign that the city's revitalization has bypassed many areas off the main tourist drags.
The French Quarter, while sustaining some damage, was spared the deluge that devastated 80 percent of New Orleans after Katrina overwhelmed the local flood protections.
"It never did cross our minds that we would not come back," said New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp President Mark Romig.
While he acknowledged that some parts of the city have not fared so well, he said tourism brought back vital jobs. The city logged $6.8 billion in visitor spending in 2014, the strongest year on record.
While just shy of the pre-storm tally, last year's visitor numbers marked nearly a three-fold increase from the 3.7 million in 2006, according to New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp, a private entity created under state law to promote tourism and related economic development.
In Romig's view, there has never been a better time to visit.
Some $400 million has been spent on refurbishing and improving hotels after Katrina, he said.
It is also easier to get there, with 45 nonstop flights to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, compared with 42 before Katrina. More cruises depart out of the Port of New Orleans, too.
David Lin and his friend Han Le recently made their second trip since Katrina, with plans to dine out and enjoy the live music and shopping in the French Quarter.
"I was actually surprised at how quickly everything came back after Katrina," Lin said. "The city seems to be thriving."
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Von Ahn)