NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The big question for Super Bowl weekend is: How much fun can tourists have on Bourbon Street with soldiers in camouflage looking over their shoulders?
The Big Easy has a big military presence this week, as the NFL, Secret Service and the FBI, to name a few, try to make the city the safest place in America for Super Sunday.
Super Bowl partygoers, who are straggling into town more slowly than usual, have noticed.
"I was joking with a friend that the communists must be over on the other side," said Rose Mariani, as she looked at the huge concrete barriers, the double sets of chain-link fence and the military trucks that barricade the Superdome.
Mariani, a lifelong resident of New Orleans, said she had never seen anything like it in her town.
But everything has changed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and this year's Super Bowl is unlike any other -- certainly not the previous eight that have been held in this party town.
The game has been designated a National Security Special Event. The Secret Service and FBI are in charge of the security detail. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has deemed security the No. 1 priority, and he's spending millions more than ever to show how serious he is.
"I have a very high degree of confidence that security will not only be unprecedented, but it will be world class and very, very effective," Tagliabue said.
By the way, the game will pit the St. Louis Rams against the New England Patriots, although at times this week, their matchup has come off as only a subplot to all the flag waving and security checks going on.
"We've got security guards guarding security guards," Rams safety Kim Herring said.
He's only half kidding.
More than Mardi Gras beads or the scantily clad women who seek them on the balconies of Bourbon Street, the prevailing presence in the Crescent City has been the hundreds of NFL security guards wearing their trademark yellow shirts.
They and the military personnel scattered about the city in uniform have given New Orleans a secure feel.
Not everyone is thrilled, however.
"It's more like a feel-bad measure to me," said New Orleans resident Charlie Heuer. "You see all these soldiers out there with M-16s and it makes you think they might have a reason to use them. It's a little unnerving."
Earlier in the week, it was still possible to get a hotel room in downtown New Orleans, although the supply is said to be drying up.
Michael Reiss, chairman of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said most hotels are requiring a four-night minimum stay. But he said many people with reservations were paying for four nights but only coming for two or three.
"I walked around Thursday night, and lots of restaurants said their business was soft," Reiss said.
Some of that started to change Friday night.
The French Quarter began filling up, albeit not as quickly as some might expect on a Super Bowl week that coincides with the lead-up to Mardi Gras.
"I expected it to be a lot better," said Jeffrey Farr, who drives a carriage in Jackson Square. "In years past, a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras, the French Quarter has been jammed. I mean, you can look around. It's like a ghost town."
There are several theories for why the crowds have been late to arrive, and they go beyond just the new emphasis on security.
The slowing economy could be one factor.
Another is that the game was originally scheduled for Jan. 27, but had to be delayed a week because of the attacks. That involved a massive swapping of dates, hotels and venues between the NFL and the National Auto Dealers' Association, whose members were originally scheduled to be here Feb. 3.
Also, there's only one week between the conference title games and the Super Bowl this year. New England's unexpected trip here has made it hard for fans to infiltrate the city.
"Five years ago, the Green Bay fans planned early because they were confident, and they were here all week," Reiss said, referring to the 1997 game between the Packers and Patriots.
Of course, if there's any place that can produce a good time even in the era of more somber celebrations, it's New Orleans.
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