NEW ORLEANS — Tourism officials said Tuesday that 2012 was a banner year for their industry, with slightly more than 9 million people visiting the New Orleans area and spending a record $6 billion during their stays.

The 9.01 million visitors last year were second only to the 10.1 million people who visited the area in 2004, the most people ever to visit the seven-parish metro area in a year. Spending reached $4.9 billion in 2004.

Of the $6 billion spent last year, somewhere between $200 million and $250 million made its way to local governments’ coffers, said John Williams, interim dean of the University of New Orleans’ College of Business Administration and co-director of the university’s Hospitality Research Center.

The number of visitors to the area last year are the most since Hurricane Katrina, and their swelling ranks suggest there is a new perception of New Orleans around the country, said Stephen Perry, CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Williams and his colleagues interviewed 15,631 people for their 2012 New Orleans Area Visitor Profile study and found that people coming to the area today visit more than just the French Quarter and Bourbon Street.

Visitors come for festivals, museums and other cultural aspects, he said.

“We’re the cultural Mecca of the South,” Perry said. “There’s no way around it.”

What officials have to do now, Williams said, is find a way to keep the momentum they’ve achieved in recent years.

“This is a very informed visitor as a consumer,” he said. “We need to capitalize on this.”

A new advertising campaign, “Follow your Nola,” should help to draw back visitors who previously visited the city and is expected to attract new visitors, according to Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corp.

“We want people to come to New Orleans and do what New Orleanians do,” Romig said, adding tourism efforts have begun to disperse visitors into parts of the city including the Marigny, Uptown, Mid-City and even Algiers.

“People are getting into the city and enjoying the city like never before,” Romig said. “We want people to help paint the picture to their friends and family that we are truly the most authentic and most unique destination in all of the Americas.”

Williams’ study found 41 percent of visitors this year were in town for the first time, while 59 percent were returning visitors.

Of those who came here last year for business, 58 percent extended their stays for pleasure, averaging an extra two nights in the area.

Seventy-three percent of visitors had positive things to say about the area and 50 percent plan to return or recommend New Orleans to friends and family.

Considering that in 2006 the number of visitors to the New Orleans area dipped to 3.7 million and spending was $2.8 billion, Williams said the area has “come a long way.”

“We’re getting the message out,” Williams said.