LAFAYETTE — South Louisiana would draw more tourists if the region invested more in French-speaking education, built Interstate 49 south to New Orleans and expanded air travel out of Lafayette, Acadiana officials told the state’s tourism chief Wednesday.
The officials also told Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne at a town hall meeting that it would help if Gov. Bobby Jindal quit cutting funds for tourism and students’ French immersion classes.
The town hall meeting, held in the Acadian-themed Vermilionville, was focused on ideas for attracting more tourism, although politics was also in the air. Dardenne, who runs the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, is a candidate for governor in 2015.
“Everything (Jindal’s) done has jeopardized what we’re trying to do,” state Sen. Eric LaFleur said to applause. LaFleur, a Democrat from Ville Platte, said the Republican Dardenne, as lieutenant governor “and possibly as our governor” in 2016, bodes well for Louisiana tourism.
LaFleur later said Jindal “almost single-handedly gutted CODOFIL,” the nonprofit Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. CODOFIL, which is part of the state office Dardenne oversees, relies on state funds to preserve and grow French language usage.
Dardenne said after the meeting that he won’t cut funding that lawmakers approve for tourism and French language programs if he becomes Louisiana’s governor.
“The Lieutenant Governor’s Office doesn’t necessarily need more money. It just needs the funds that have been statutorily allocated to it,” Dardenne said.
Dardenne’s meeting in Lafayette was sandwiched between two others: one held last month in Shreveport and another in Monroe slated for Oct. 28. The Lafayette event had tourism officials from the parishes of Lafayette, Acadia, Iberia, Evangeline, Pointe Coupee and St. Martin.
Some at the meeting Wednesday stressed the need for quicker ways to get to Acadiana, and better roads once visitors get there.
Zachary Barker, a Nashville, Tennessee, native, said getting to Lafayette via air travel is difficult. Barker, who works with the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, said Lafayette Regional Airport needs more direct flight connections to major cities.
Currently, three airlines provide nonstop service to four U.S. cities: Atlanta, Houston, Denver and Dallas. To get to and from other destinations requires connecting flights and airport layovers.
Raquella LaBlanc, who works for the Lafayette Airport Commission, said more nonstop service could come if Lafayette Parish residents pass a temporary sales tax next month that would provide money to increase the number of boarding gates from three to five.
The Louisiana airport with the most nonstop flights is New Orleans, but car travel from the Lafayette area to Louis Armstrong International Airport can mean a driving ordeal of two hours or more.
Taking Interstate 10 over the Baton Rouge bridge and Atchafalaya Basin is a crapshoot, Barker and others at the meeting said, and the U.S. 90 thoroughfare that connects Lafayette to New Orleans can be a slow slog.
U.S. 90, however, is the future route of I-49 South.
David Mann, with the I-49 South Coalition, said bringing U.S. 90 up to interstate standards would cost an estimated $3 billion, money that has not been allocated.
Charles Larroque, executive director of CODOFIL, said all the transportation and other efforts taken to increase tourism would be for naught if south Louisiana loses its bedrock French identity.
“It’s our DNA, it’s our brand,” Larroque said.