NEW ORLEANS — When New Orleans began rebuilding its biggest business after Hurricane Katrina, it did not want to just get back to normal, it wanted to be bigger than ever.

The groups in charge of bringing in both conventions and leisure travelers are now joining together to move closer to a goal set two years ago to see annual visits to the city reach the 13.7 million mark by 2018, the city's 300th anniversary.

Kelly Shultz of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau says they have joined with New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. to make sure the city's message reaches as many potential tourists as possible.

Tourism, the region's leading industry, is a $5 billion business that generates $200 million in annual tax revenue and creates tens of thousands of jobs.

After Katrina, which struck in August 2005, the number of visitors dropped to just 3.7 million in 2006 and most of those were recovery workers for the storm, Shultz said.

By last year, despite the recession and the massive BP oil spill and negative publicity it generated for the area, tourism had rebounded to 8.3 million.

"Selling the city to conventions and tourist has definitely become easier," Shultz said.

The effort to sell New Orleans gets a tremendous boost to start 2012 with a string of big sporting events — the Sugar Bowl and BCS Championship college football games and the NCAA Final Four basketball championship.

"Each of those events means television time for the city," said Mark Romig, chief executive officer of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. "They show pictures of the city, they talk about it, about our food, our artist. We could not afford to buy that kind of television time."

Attracting almost 14 million visitors a year would result in not only a boost in the city's economy and tax base, Romig said, it could mean tens of thousands of additional jobs.

But reaching that milestone will require a steady advertising effort, he said.

"In order to compete with other cities that are going after those same leisure dollars, we are really going to have to ramp up our marketing efforts," Romig said. "We're going to have to be out there 24-7 if we're going to do it."

New Orleans has plenty of tools to work with in 2012. In addition to the sports events, there is Mardi Gras, the Essence Music Festival and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

And New Orleans figures to get extra attention as Louisiana celebrates its 200th anniversary of statehood.