This is how tourism gets political.
It’s been a little more than two weeks since North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 (HB2), which repealed new anti-discrimination ordinances that extended rights and protections to members of the LGBT community. In response, major companies, cities, and entire states—everyone from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to Marriott's CEO Arne Sorenson—have gone to great lengths to express their disdain for the anti-LGBT act.
On March 29, Cuomo joined West Palm Beach, Seattle, and San Francisco (the latter are known as being two of America's best cities for gay-friendly travel) in banning government travel to North Carolina. “We believe that all people—regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation—deserve the same rights and protections under the law,” said Cuomo in a recent press release.
While vetoing publicly funded, government travel may not have a tremendous economic impact on the spurned southern state, the huge backlash from major businesses can. And leisure tourism, to be sure, will suffer from the discriminatory act.
It’s not the first time a city passed an anti-LGBT law and suffered the consequences. In March of last year, Indiana passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA): a law that targeted the LGBT community. Chris Gahl, the vice president of Indianapolis’ convention and visitors association, spoke with Travel + Leisure about the tremendous impact RFRA had on the state capital.
“Indianapolis has lost more than $60 million in future convention business as a result of [the] controversy, based on meeting planner feedback,” Gahl said. Even though the bill was repealed in a week—thanks largely to cancelled conventions and the NCAA’s threat to move the Men’s Final Four—the city continued to experience tremors from the controversy. “On the leisure side, [there were] more than 1,000 cancelled trips that spring and summer, tied directly to RFRA," Gahl said.
North Carolina, which has not responded to the retaliation nearly as swiftly as Indiana, no doubt will experience the same repercussions. Shelly Green, the president and CEO of Durham’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, anticipates that the city—and the state at large—will have more than just a tarnished reputation in the aftermath.
Cancelled meetings—even a drop in attendance as low as 10 percent, Green explained—could affect associations and local businesses. “We [also] have some high visibility festivals coming up in the next few weeks, where individuals have made calls to boycott,” she said, referring to events like Moogfest, an art, tech, and music festival running May 19 through 22. There are also the statewide Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and Pride Parade in the summer and fall, respectively.
Durham cited the city’s "long history of embracing diversity and inclusivity [as a] welcoming, LGBTQ-friendly community," as well as the injury to local businesses, when it issued an official statement opposing HB2 on March 30. The sentiment is shared by other North Carolina cities.
Major players in the tourism industry—not including tourists themselves—also are making their politics known. Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, Choice Hotels, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Orbitz, American Airlines, and Marriott International all have demanded that North Carolina's General Assembly repeal HB2.
Marriott’s CEO, Arne Sorenson, shared his commentary with CNBC. “[HB2] does not reflect our values or a basic principle that helps drive new jobs and economic growth…everyone deserves to be welcome.” Sorenson added that Marriott is joining other American businesses to endorse the Equality Act, which would “set uniform, federal protections that include sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Every day that North Carolina’s state policy makers stand by HB2 is a guarantee that the Tar Heel state's economy, tourism industry, and character could be irreparably damaged. As Indianapolis—and the state of Indiana—know too well, even rescinding the bill may be too little too late, especially for LGBT travelers.
UPDATE: Celebrities including Ringo Starr and Bruce Springsteen have cancelled performances in North Carolina to protest the anti-LGBT legislation. All of the upcoming Cirque du Soleil shows in Greensboro, Charlotte, and Raleigh have been called off in protest. On April 18, Pearl Jam wrote a handwritten note boycotting North Carolina and cancelling their upcoming concert. PayPal and Deutsche Bank have terminated plans to expand in North Carolina, resulting in the loss of at least 650 jobs.
Cyndi Lauper, meanwhile, has decided to stick to the schedule. Her June 4 concert in Raleigh will not be nixed. Instead, Lauper is transforming the performance into an assembly to fight HB2. "I will be donating all of the profits from the show," Lauper wrote on her website, noting that her manager and agent would, too, "to build public support to repeal HB2."
Melanie Lieberman is the Assistant Digital Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @melanietaryn.