Business

North Carolina transgender bathroom law damaging tourism, industry says

Tourist associations and hotel operators in North Carolina say recently passed legislation widely viewed as anti-LGBT is not only morally wrong — it's bad for business.

City of Charlotte alone losing millions of dollars, visitors authority calculates

The 21c Museum Hotels bought this design from artist Peregrine Honig to use as a sign on bathrooms at its hotel in Durham, N.C., as a statement against the state's House Bill 2, also known as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. (21c Museum Hotels)

Officials in North Carolina's hospitality industry say the state's new law affecting transgender people is damaging the state's tourism business, as both individuals and large groups cancel trips in protest over the legislation widely condemned for eroding LGBT rights.    

"It's shocking and disappointing that in 2016, state governments are still sanctioning discrimination," said Craig Greenberg, president of 21c Museum Hotels, which has a property in Durham, N.C.

Craig Greenberg, president of 21c Museum Hotels, says North Carolina's Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act is discriminatory and a 'human issue' that also has significant economic implications. (21c Museum Hotels)

The most widely publicized aspect of the state's Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act — also known as House Bill 2 — is the section requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond with their "biological sex" as stated on their birth certificate, even if that's not the gender with which they identify.

The legislation has prompted artists, including Bruce Springsteen, to cancel concerts in North Carolina and companies to campaign against it. The law has also sparked travel boycotts of the state — something Greenberg said the tourism industry is seeing first-hand. 

"We've had numerous guests and groups that have cancelled their reservations with our hotel, because the groups are no longer coming to North Carolina," he told CBC News. "This is a human issue, but it certainly has economic implications not just for our hotel, but for North Carolina's entire economy." 

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority estimates the controversial law has already cost more than $2.5 million US in lost spending from cancelled conferences and events and from groups that had short-listed the state's largest city for upcoming events, but pulled out because of their opposition to the legislation.  

But that's only a fraction of the financial toll House Bill 2 will take on the tourism industry in the weeks and months to come, officials say. 

"The real ramifications, I think for us, are down the road," said David Montgomery, area director of sales and marketing for The Westin Charlotte hotel. "Even if they amend the bill right now, or repeal it … that damage is being done right now and it [could] be felt for years to come."

David Montgomery, sales and marketing director at The Westin Charlotte, says North Carolina's legislation threatening the rights of LGBT people is a 'black eye' for the city of Charlotte's pro-LGBT history and will have 'ramifications' on the tourism industry 'if we don't get this corrected.' (The Westin Charlotte )

At this point, the visitors authority estimates that damage could amount to approximately $84 million US in the city of Charlotte alone, based on potentially lost spending from 36 events whose organizers have expressed concern about the law.  

The largest of those at-risk events, said Gina Sheridan, chief marketing and communications officer for the visitors authority, is the 2017 NBA all-star game. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has publicly called on North Carolina to change the law if it wants the event to stay in Charlotte next February.  

Some businesses in North Carolina's hospitality industry are trying to counter the unwelcoming, discriminatory message they say the state government is sending to LGBT travellers.

The 21c Museum Hotel in Durham, for example, has installed bathroom signage depicting a combined male and female figure, with the words "We Don't Care" written underneath. 

"We feel that as a corporate citizen, as an art museum, we have a moral obligation and responsibility to be inclusive," said Greenberg, the company's president. 

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and various businesses, including The Westin Charlotte, have started a signage and social media campaign called "Always Welcome." 

The Westin Charlotte is one of the hotels and businesses in North Carolina participating in the 'Always Welcome' campaign. (The Westin Charlotte)

The idea, said Montgomery, is for the hotel to send a message that "we've always been welcoming, we've always, you know, embraced diversity and inclusion and we always will … regardless of the legislation."

But Shelly Green, president and CEO of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that while the hospitality and tourism industry in North Carolina truly welcomes LGBT travellers, a law prohibiting transgender people from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity is inherently unwelcoming.   

Shelly Green, president and CEO of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, says spring is a crucial time of year for the tourism industry and that people are feeling frustrated by the effect on business of North Carolina's controversial bill. (Shelly Green/LinkedIn)

"If you're a public entity or in the public accommodation business, you must discriminate now," Green told CBC News.

She worries that campaigns like the one in Charlotte could be "off-putting" to someone in the LGBT community who feels the welcome message no longer rings true for North Carolina. 

"It's such a conflict for us," Green said. "I think Durham and a lot of these cities are very genuine and you really will be totally welcomed here, but, you know, we can't say that with the same level of certainty that we used to before this law was passed."   

"There's none of us here that thought that this was a good idea," she said. "Frankly, I think the best word to describe what people are feeling here is frustrated."

CBC News sent emails and left a voicemail for Josh Ellis, communications director for North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, requesting comment on the tourism industry's concerns. Those messages were not returned.  

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory says House Bill 2 will not be repealed and accuses the media of unfair reporting on the law. (H. Scott Hoffmann/News & Record/AP)

Supporters of House Bill 2 in the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature have said it is necessary to protect privacy and keep children and women safe from sexual predators in bathrooms. 

McCrory, who signed the bill into law in March, has said it will not be repealed. He has slammed criticism of the legislation as a "national smear campaign" against the state.

About the Author

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from Reuters

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