Tourism Industry Hit by Backlash against Anti-LGBT Laws in Missouri and North Carolina

Monday, April 25, 2016
(photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)


By Shivani Vora, New York Times


The reaction has been swift.


The singer Bryan Adams canceled his concert in Mississippi in protest against what he called an “anti-LGBT” law, and the actress Sharon Stone decided not to film a movie there. In North Carolina, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam and Ani DiFranco have canceled shows in response to a law regulating transgender bathroom access.


While the celebrity response is drawing considerable attention, the travel industry in each state is more concerned about lower-profile visitors: the everyday tourists who have already begun canceling trips or planning vacations elsewhere.


Both states have been hit by hotel cancellations from tourists who spend a combined tens of billions of dollars annually, and though the effect is difficult to quantify so early on, local hotels, tourist boards, industry associations and government officials fear that a boycott will continue to dampen business. Making matters tougher for the businesses, the Foreign Office in Britain has issued an advisory for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender travelers going to the two states based on the laws.


The impact is already being felt in North Carolina, which last month passed a law that limits transgender people to using bathrooms that match the sex on their birth certificates. Tourism is a crucial driver of the economy in the state, the sixth most-visited in the country, where domestic travelers spent a record $21.3 billion in 2014, according to Visit North Carolina, the state’s tourist board.


In Charlotte, which has a large convention center, more than 20 conventions have either canceled or are no longer considering holding their event in the state, resulting in a loss so far of around $2.5 million according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.


The Westin Charlotte, a Starwood property next to the convention center, is seeing a dip. “Over 55 percent of our business comes from groups, and 11 groups have pulled us from consideration” because of the law, said David Montgomery, the property’s director of sales and marketing at the hotel, which has hung a large banner that says “Always Welcome” on its exterior, part of a campaign by the local tourism authority.


Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the former president of the Southern Sociological Society, a Virginia-based group dedicated to sociological research, recently canceled the group’s conference of 1,200 attendees at the Westin, scheduled for 2019, because of the law. “We don’t want to spend our money in a state that discriminates against the LGBT community,” she said, “and since our members often bring their families along to the conferences and stay in the destination for a few days after for fun, we’re talking about tourist dollars from airfare, hotel rooms and meals not going to Charlotte.”


Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina says a Charlotte ordinance set in motion the law he signed last month. McCrory, whose office did not respond to requests for comment, said on “Meet the Press” recently that the law was an attempt to counter a city ordinance banning discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people.


Regardless of the locus of the political tensions, the cancellations are being reported statewide. Marriott International, with 134 properties across its portfolio of brands in North Carolina, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, with 20, are seeing canceled reservations. In an email, Ken Siegel, Starwood’s chief administrative officer and general counsel, said, “Anecdotally, we know that some guests have canceled bookings at our North Carolina properties after the law passed to take their business outside of the state.”


Thomas Maloney, the senior director of government affairs for Marriott, said its properties’ handful of cancellations may not have a big financial impact now, but the brand was taking a longer view. “The biggest risk we are looking to measure is not cancellations right now but bookings that don’t come in down the line,” he said.


Smaller companies are not being spared, either. “We’ve had several guests, who stated that they are not gay or transgender, cancel their stay with us because of this issue,” said Amanda Sullivan, the director of marketing and public relations at the Old Edwards Inn and Spa, a Relais & Chateaux property in the Blue Ridge Mountains.


Mississippi is facing its own backlash among tourists in response to a law that allows people to discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people based on religious grounds. Like North Carolina, the state is highly dependent on its travel industry. In 2015, travel and tourism total employment — direct, indirect and induced — was 117,685, or 10.5 percent of statewide employment, according to Visit Mississippi.


Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi did not respond to requests for comment but said on Twitter that hotel occupancy rates at non-casino hotels had risen compared with those a year ago. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend may not hold.


Linda G. Hornsby, the executive director of the Mississippi Hotel & Lodging Association, a group of more than 300 hotels, said that her organization’s member hotels had reported some cancellations.


One family who will not be coming had plans to visit Delta blues attractions and Bay St. Louis, according to Mike Cashion, the executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality & Restaurant Association, who wrote a letter to the Mississippi House of Representatives relaying the immediate and worrisome impact on the travel industry because of the state’s bill. “That family is going to New Orleans and Galveston instead, and they are not an isolated example,” he said.


Jay Hughes, a Democratic member of the Mississippi House of Representatives for District 12, which includes the city of Oxford, famous for its rich literary culture, also reported seeing several cancellations.


“Tourism is not a cottage industry for us. It is a key economic driver, and the economic toll of people not coming to visit our state” because the law “is unpredictable and definitely real,” he said.


Oxford, in particular, is a big tourist draw. With a population of only around 20,000, the visitor spending there in 2015 was $134.8 million, according to the local tourist council, Visit Oxford.


Travel industry executives and officials in North Carolina and Mississippi are attempting to counter the message that they say the legislation delivers. Hughes on April 12 introduced the Mississippi Economic Tourism and Recovery Act (pdf) to the House, which would prevent businesses and individuals from discriminating against the LGBT community.


Marriott International’s president and chief executive, Arne Sorenson, is one of several heads of hospitality companies who have signed an open letter to North Carolina’s governor asking for the repeal of the bathroom law. That letter was written by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, and Equality North Carolina, the state organization working to secure equal rights for LGBT North Carolinians.


Christopher J. Nassetta, president and chief executive of Hilton Worldwide, and Tom Mangas, chief executive of Starwood, also signed the letter. Nassetta signed a similar letter the Human Rights Campaign wrote to the Mississippi governor asking for the law to be repealed.


Local tourist organizations, too, are taking action. On April 13, the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority launched an Always Welcome campaign to convey the city’s inclusive culture. Businesses around town are participating by posting banners and signs with the Always Welcome logo.


The Mississippi travel industry is also expressing a welcoming attitude in dealing with the effects of the bill that was passed there on March 30. Linda G. Hornsby of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association said: “The first thing we did after the bill was passed was to put up a banner on our website that says ‘Everyone Is Welcome Here’ because that’s how we feel. This law is not what Mississippi is about.”


To Learn More:

Big Corporations Face Off with Republican State Lawmakers over Discriminatory LGBT Bills (by Kathleen Foody, Associated Press)

Springsteen Band Member Calls Anti-LGBT Law “Evil Virus” After Bruce Cancels N.C. Concert (by John Carucci, Associated Press)

Most Contentious Governor’s Race in Nation Expected in North Carolina as Battle over LGBT Law Heats Up (by Gary D. Robertson and Jonathan Drew, Associated Press)

Business Backlash to North Carolina Law Barring Local LGBT Anti-Discrimination Laws (by Emery P. Dalesio and Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press)


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