Florida tourism continues to thrive despite travel advisories and political battles

Florida tourism continues to thrive despite travel advisories and political battles

For several months before Jean Franco Rivera’s one-year wedding anniversary, she had the perfect plan to celebrate: Taking a trip to Disney World and going on all of her favorite rides with her husband, Ahmed, and brother-in-law, Luis. The three men, all gay and Latino, are originally from Puerto Rico but now live in Texas. As the trip approached, Jean Franco, 42, said she felt some anxiety about traveling to a state that in recent months passed legislation targeting LGBTQ people.

But in the end they left.

And as recently as Saturday, they were part of the usual crowd of people at the Orlando theme park waiting for Space Mountain, Guardians of the Galaxy and Jean Franco’s favorite ride, Flight of Passage. That day at Disney World, you’d never know that the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the LGBTQ organization Equality Florida had recently issued warnings asking people to stay away from Florida when visiting. Rethink because the policies of Governor Ron DeSantis and other Republican lawmakers.

I traveled to Florida following the advice of the NAACP to see if the warnings had any effect. Riveras and other travelers told me that although they were against several recently passed laws in Florida, they don’t think canceling their vacations will help anyone — or change policies. In fact, many travelers said they visited Disney and parts of Florida to get away from politics.

Stephanie Kate Jones, who visited the park from Wales in the United Kingdom, told me, “Coming to Disney, in particular, is like entering a safe zone.” “Coming here is a way to escape reality and the stress of everyday life.”

And while the warnings were widely covered outside the state, they have so far had little or no effect on tourism numbers.

“Travel has always transcended politics,” said Stacey Ritter, president and chief executive of Visit Lauderdale, a Fort Lauderdale tourism organization. “People have always traveled to places they don’t agree with politically because they want to see something new, different. They want an experience. They want a holiday.”

Gov. DeSantis, who is re-elected by a landslide in the 2022 election, has introduced socially conservative policies, from the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” education bill to limiting gender and sex education to advanced placement until the decision to ban the education of African American history because it was a form of “Emotion“To crack down on undocumented immigration.

Mr. DeSantis, who recently entered the 2024 presidential race, has also been at loggerheads with Disney since last year, when the company said it would block political donations in Florida because of a sex education bill. The two sides then began fighting for control of the board overseeing Disney World’s development, with Mr. DeSantis trying to take control of it and limit Disney’s authority.

Disney sued the governor over the issue this spring, and in May the company said it was canceling a $1 billion development in Orlando.

When announcing his candidacy for the presidency, Mr. DeSantis said that the NAACP advice was “completely a sham”. He said there were travel warnings a political stunt, “These leftist groups have been doing this for many years. And at the end of the day, what they’re doing is trying to cobble together a narrative with legacy media,” he said.

But Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, said the organization has received an increasing number of inquiries about whether it is safe for LGBTQ travelers to visit Florida. “We felt it necessary to answer any incoming inquiries honestly and fully,” he added.

Announcing LULAC’s advice, the group’s president, Domingo Garcia, warned that “DeSantis’ rules enforcement would treat us like criminals, taking away a dangerous person who just wanted to visit family or enjoy Disney World.”

And Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive of the NAACP, said in an email in response to Mr. DeSantis’ comments: “As long as the powerful stories of our contributions to this country and our rich backgrounds are denied, Black Americans will have no place in the state.” No need to spend labor, time or money.

Florida is a tourism megastar. In 2022, it is expected to receive 137.6 million visitors, the most in its history, according to the state tourism organization, Visit Florida, and the governor’s office in May. shared with pride Florida welcomed 37.9 million people in the first three months of this year.

Orlando remains the most visited city in the United States – with 74 million people traveling there in 2022. According to Visit Florida, in 2021, visitors to the state will contribute $101.9 billion to Florida’s economy and support more than 1.7 million Florida jobs.

While many Floridians said the travel warnings from civil rights organizations have symbolic meaning, some said they were worried that people would stop visiting the state altogether. Some recalled the protests over North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill” that barred transgender people from using the bathroom corresponding to their gender. The consequences of that bill were immediate and significant, leading to its repeal.

Nicolas Graff, associate Dean The Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism at New York University’s School of Professional Studies states that state policies may prevent politically active people from visiting a destination, but, “the assumption that travelers—business or Leisure travelers – would really do that.” Change your behavior because of politics, I think it’s the minority people.”

And that’s true across the political landscape: Lance Toland, a conservative Georgia based business owner Those who approve of Mr. DeSantis’ efforts to rein in Disney said state policies would not prevent him from going there. For example, California’s liberal laws don’t prevent them from moving there, he said. “I cannot worry about what is the stand of each state. It doesn’t affect me.”

When I visited many popular tourist places, life went on without any hindrance. In Winter Park, just north of Orlando, lines for restaurants like Prato’s, a casual Italian spot with a large outdoor patio, were long. When I stopped several shoppers exiting the expensive boutiques along Park Avenue, they said that although they had heard about the spat between Disney and Mr. DeSantis, they had not heard about the travel advice.

Ashley Smith, 32, was visiting a friend in Winter Park for the weekend and was on her way out on a boat tour of Winter Park’s lakes. Asked what she thought of the advice, she said she did not understand how limiting her travels could possibly be linked to state political dramas.

The advice comes after years of work by tourism officials across the state to expand their visitor base. For example, in 2021, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau announced that it has changed its name to Visit Lauderdale And it had a new catchy tagline: “Everybody under the sun.”

Visit Lauderdale was one of several state tourism boards that have recognized over the past decade that international, black, Latino and LGBTQ travelers have discretionary income to spend on vacations and real estate and it would be smart to appeal to them. Them.

But these days, tourism boards, destination marketing organizations and travel businesses across the state are trying to figure out how to keep attracting different types of travelers.

Many of them prefer not to address the controversy directly. Florida’s tourism marketing organizations are funded through a bed tax – when a traveler checks-in to a hotel or resort, a percentage of what they paid for their stay is collected by visitors and tourism organizations. goes to fund the works done. That tax is governed by state law. Leaders of three destination marketing organizations, all of whom asked to speak anonymously, said that although they do not support the recently enacted laws, they are concerned that publicly criticizing Mr. DeSantis could lead to retaliation by the state legislature. which may cut or eliminate funding. their organization.

Jane Cousins, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project and a mother of four Part of A federal lawsuit challenging the sex education bill says she believes travel industry players, including cruises, airlines, destination marketing organizations and others, should speak out against the recent legislation. He also noted that meetings with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona; Adam Rachel Levin, Assistant Secretary of Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services; And Health and Human Services Secretary Javier Becerra and other activists were told they had support in Washington, but, he said, “no one intervened.” The Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment.

Ms. Ritter, president and chief executive of Visit Lauderdale, was ready to go on the record. “Do I think the impact will be felt immediately? No, I don’t,” she said.

But, she said, she is already seeing business and corporate travelers, who make up a significant portion of the travel industry, look elsewhere. A week after civil rights organizations issued the warning, seven large conventions and conferences withdrew their plans to be in Fort Lauderdale, he said. Many event organizers are looking forward to events three to five years from now, and very few are considering Florida, Ms. Ritter said. His organization is not even bidding for some of the events as they feel that their purpose has been lost.

“And it is directly related to the policies of the state,” she said.

One of the reasons Jean Franco Rivera moved his anniversary trip was because he felt that the money for his trip was actually being spent in protest of Mr. DeSantis’s policies, as he was going to Disney. “Disney stands up for our rights and being here feels like supporting their decision to stand up against DeSantis,” he added. “Many people who work at Disney are part of our community, the ‌L.GBTQ community, and being here is our way of supporting them.”

Several travelers I met at Disney World and along the Jacksonville Beach Pier suggested that the parts of the state they’re most likely to visit aren’t really Florida in some way. Key West, Miami, Wilton Manors, St. Petersburg and Sarasota traditionally vote Democratic and have large numbers of L.GBTQ and immigrant residents, who in many cases disagree with the legislation being introduced. The visitors said that by supporting the economies of these places, they could defy state Republican lawmakers.

They also said they felt conflicted about the advice, warning it felt like an escalation in politics that would potentially do more harm to local business owners, low-earning residents and liberal enclaves than Mr. DeSantis or Republican lawmakers. Can deliver

Some Florida residents felt the same way. Ms. Cousins ​​said, “As a resident of Orlando, which is our tourist destination, I do not advocate for a travel ban because so many of our friends work low-wage travel jobs.” “They’re influencers, not top-paid CEOs.”

At the moment, people associated with tourism in the state feel like they are walking a line. Rachel Covello, of outcoastA digital magazine focusing on the LGBTQ community said the publication was promoting the state as an inclusive destination. Now, while not telling people to turn away, he said, it is highlighting specific destinations that are known to welcome LGBTQ travelers.

“We have shifted our focus,” he said. “While we are promoting tourism, we do not want to appear that we are ignorant of what is happening in our own state.”

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