A tanker on the Mississippi River in New Orleans.
Intracoastal Waterway near New Orleans

New Orleans is home to one of the largest and busiest ports in the world, accounts for a major portion of the nation's refinery and production of petroleum, has a top 50 research university (Tulane University) as well as half a dozen other institutions of higher education, and is renowned for its cultural tourism.

New Orleans is an industrial and distribution center. The Port of New Orleans is the 5th-largest port in the United States based on volume of cargo handled, second-largest in the state after the Port of South Louisiana, and 12th-largest in the U.S. based on value of cargo. The Port of South Louisiana, also based in the New Orleans area, is the world's busiest in terms of bulk tonnage, and, when combined with the Port of New Orleans, it forms the 4th-largest port system in volume handled.

Like Houston, Texas, New Orleans is located in proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, and the many oil rigs lie just offshore. Louisiana ranks fifth in oil production and eighth in reserves in the United States. It is also home to two of the four Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) storage facilities: West Hackberry in Cameron Parish and Bayou Choctaw in Iberville Parish. Other infrastructure includes 17 petroleum refineries with a combined crude oil distillation capacity of nearly 2.8 million barrels per day (450,000 m³/d), the second highest in the nation after Texas. Louisiana has numerous ports including the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), which is capable of receiving ultra large oil tankers. With all of the product to distribute, Louisiana is home to many major pipelines supplying the nation: Crude Oil (Exxon,Chevron, BP, Texaco, Shell, Scurloch-Permian, Mid-Valley, Calumet, Conoco, Koch, Unocal, Dept. of Energy, Locap), Product (TEPPCO, Colonial, Plantation, Explorer, Texaco, Collins), and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (Dixie, TEPPCO, Black Lake, Koch, Chevron, Dynegy, Kinder, Dow, Bridgeline, FMP, Tejas, Texaco, UTP).[51] There are a few energy companies that have their regional headquarters in the city, including Chevron and Shell Oil Company.

The city is the home and worldwide headquarters of a single Fortune 500 company: Entergy Corporation, an energy and infrastructure providing company. Freeport-McMoRan, the city's other Fortune 500 company, merged its copper and gold exploration unit with an Arizona company and relocated that division to Phoenix, Arizona. Other companies with a significant presence or base in New Orleans include AT&T, IBM, Navtech, Harrah's, Popeye's Fried Chicken, Zatarain's, Whitney Bank (Corp. HQ), Capital One (Banking HQ), Tidewater (Corp. HQ), and Energy Partners Ltd. (Corp. HQ).

Tourism is a major staple in the city's economy, a $5.5 billion industry that accounts for 40 percent of New Orleans' tax revenues. In 2004 tourism employed 85,000 people, making it New Orleans' top industry.[36] The city also hosts the World Cultural Economic Forum (WCEF). The forum, held annually at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center, is directed toward promoting cultural and economic development opportunities through the strategic convening of cultural ambassadors and leaders from around the world. The first WCEF took place in October 2008.[52]

The federal government has a significant presence in the area. The NASA Michoud Assembly Facility is located in the eastern portion of Orleans Parish known as New Orleans East and is operated by Lockheed-Martin. It is a large manufacturing facility where external fuel tanks for space shuttles are produced, and it also houses the National Finance Center, operated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).