A Facebook advertisement for Hendersonville-based Outfitter Bicycle Tours seeks to lure travelers to visit the Biltmore Estate, Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest.
But comments from ad readers say a new feature of the North Carolina landscape will prevent them from taking the trip: House Bill 2, which prevents local governments from adopting rules against discrimination on the basis of sexual preference or identity.
“As an open lesbian, I’ll be riding bikes in another state until you all elect a Governor and politicos who recognize that I am a human being too!” one says.
“Boycotting. We were planning the Trek ride in Asheville for our vacation but not now,” reads another comment.
People in the travel and tourism industry in the Asheville area and across the state are waiting nervously to see how many people avoid North Carolina because of their displeasure over HB2.
Some say they are already seeing negative impacts, a few say it may not affect the bottom line and others expect problems in the future, with the big question being how large the effects will be.
“In terms of real financial impact, that remains to be seen,” said Jim Muth, co-owner of Beaufort House Inn in North Asheville and vice chairman of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. “It’s just happened and there’s this incredulity: … (Legislators) really did that? What year is this?”
In the national eye
Indiana backtracked last year after a law that would have allowed businesses to cite religious beliefs to discriminate against gays and lesbians brought national condemnation and threats of boycotts. A report to an Indianapolis agency trying to lure tourists there found that the controversy cost the city as much as $60 million in hotel profits, tax revenue and other economic benefits when a dozen groups moved meetings elsewhere despite the fact that the state quickly altered the law to remove some of its most criticized effects.
Arkansas last year scaled back a similar measure due in part to economic concerns and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said Monday he would veto a bill there after many companies, particularly those in the film industry, said they would curtail operations in the state if it passed.
North Carolina’s new law is different in that it legislates which bathrooms people must use in government buildings, a particular concern for those who are transgender, and prevents local governments from outlawing discrimination against LGBT people. That means, as was the case before the law was passed, businesses and government can discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or identity whether their concern is religious or not.
A Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance that would have gone into effect Friday prompted HB2, but the law applies statewide.
Effects on the travel and tourism industry and the state’s reputation will be statewide too.
National media outlets including ABC News, USA Today and MSNBC have covered the controversy and The Washington Post and The New York Times are among those also condemning the bill in editorials.
“Since facts and human decency seem to hold no sway with the state’s lawmakers, we can only hope that threatened boycotts of North Carolina by companies and others appalled by last week’s events open some eyes to the need to repeal this hateful law,” the Post editorial says.
Mayors of New York, San Francisco, Seattle and West Palm Beach, Florida, have cited the law in banning non-essential travel to North Carolina by their employees. So has the governor of New York state.
Gov. Pat McCrory has said that misinformation in the media and from advocates has furthered a backlash against the state and once he explains to business leaders that they can make whatever accommodations for LGBT customers and employees they want, they have been reassured. He said he is trying to get out accurate information about the bill.
However, it appears that no major companies that denounced the law after its passage March 23 have publicly changed their positions. Critics say McCrory is just trying to deflect blame for his own actions in signing the bill.
Stephanie Pace Brown, executive director of the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Monday she had fielded about a dozen emails from people saying they are cancelling plans to come to Asheville and that a couple of local companies have told her they have lost business because of HB2.
She says she does not know how much that relatively small number will grow: “I think we have to wait and see. I know it’s a big concern among the industry statewide.”
Brown and Outfitter Bicycle Tours head Jamie Gilpin said the impact will be hard to measure because most people who don’t come to North Carolina because of HB2 won’t bother to contact anyone to say why.
Gilpin said he has not heard directly from potential customers about HB2 after initial comments on his Facebook ad appeared.
But, he said, “Silence is a gauge. … I’m sure that there are fewer people reaching out” to consider trips.
Officials at two of Asheville’s biggest players in the tourism industry, The Biltmore Company and Omni Grove Park Inn, said they knew of no HB2-related cancellations.
“It’s just happened and there hasn’t been any impact and hopefully there won’t be,” said Julia Akers, director of marketing communications at Grove Park Inn.
Muth, the innkeeper, said gay and lesbian customers are a significant part of his business and problems are more likely to be visible later. Visitors will probably carry through with existing plans to come to Asheville but HB2 may be a factor when they choose destinations in the future, he said.
He hopes Asheville’s reputation for having a large LGBT community and being supportive of their rights will blunt negative impacts, but said it also means HB2 will be repugnant to many visitors.
“I’m hoping that if anything people realize that (HB2) is not consistent with who the people of this community are,” he said. “It gives North Carolina a bad name.”
Local bed and breakfast inns are working on a joint statement on the issue, Muth said, and some are already trying to reassure customers bothered by HB2.
“The Carolina Bed & Breakfast does not discriminate based on race, religion or sexual preference,” reads a statement on the Montford B and B’s website that cites HB2. “Good people of every type are welcome at our inn. It’s not who you love it’s that you love at all that counts.”
Not just Asheville
Potential fallout from HB2 is receiving attention elsewhere in the state too.
Organizers of next month’s High Point furniture market said that the new law is causing “significant economic damage” to the market, which draws 75,000 people twice a year.
“Based on the reaction in just the last few days, hundreds and perhaps thousands of our customers will not attend Market this April,” a statement released Monday said.
The Durham Tourism Development Authority board has called a special meeting for Wednesday to discuss how to respond to HB2, said Shelly Green, president and CEO of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Meeting planners worried some attendees won’t come to Durham because of HB2 have asked the board to come out with a statement on it, Green said.
Annual meetings make up a large portion of many associations’ annual revenue, so they view any threat to attendance at them very seriously, she said.
“There’s definitely going to be some fallout,” Green said. But total effects will “be somewhat hard to measure because I believe is going to happen is there’s going to be a lot of silent losses.”
When some groups or companies are deciding where to hold their next meeting, “We’re just not on the list any more and we won’t know it,” she said.
Steve Morse, director of the hospitality and tourism program at Western Carolina University, said the effects of boycotts or “economic activism” on travel and tourism destinations are hard to measure. Some groups may avoid the state because of HB2 while it might make others more likely to come, he said.
Durham County saw 9.3 million visitors in 2014 and their spending supported 13,856 jobs, Green said.
Durham has a gay and lesbian film festival, gay pride parade and several performers scheduled to appear at Moogfest in May are transgender, she said. The music and technology event formerly held in Asheville has issued a statement condemning HB2 and saying it will have space at the festival “dedicated to education and dialogue around these issues.”
Green said Asheville and Durham’s counter-culture feel makes HB2 reaction especially critical to their tourism industries.
“It makes us vulnerable,” she said. “We have more to lose because we attract more people for whom that is important.”