Politics & Government

North Carolina tourist industry concerned about HB2 fallout

King Mackerel fisherman Sunny Patel, of Emerald Isle, heads to the far end of the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier in Emerald Isle, N.C. on Monday, July 13, 2015.
King Mackerel fisherman Sunny Patel, of Emerald Isle, heads to the far end of the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier in Emerald Isle, N.C. on Monday, July 13, 2015. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

For years, Bill Phelps traveled from his home in Vancouver, Canada, to the Outer Banks to hold family reunions.

Phelps’ family now plans to move the event to Destin, Fla., after reading international headlines about House Bill 2. “All family members have strongly objected to HB2, and consider it hateful and a threat to a civilized society,” Phelps said in an email.

Tourism agencies from Asheville to the Outer Banks have been hearing from out-of-state travelers who oppose the law and say they’ve crossed North Carolina off their list of destinations.

House Bill 2 requires transgender people in government buildings to use bathrooms that match the sex on their birth certificates, and prevents local governments from banning discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in employment and public accommodations.

The economic impact of losing vacationers is hard to measure. Canceled conventions have drawn more attention because they come with dollar figures: Wake County, for example, estimates that House Bill 2-related cancellations have resulted in more than $3 million in lost revenue. Canceled conventions worth millions have also been reported in Charlotte and Greensboro.

But popular beach and mountain destinations in North Carolina rely more on vacation travel than conventions. Tourism officials are working with hotels and vacation rental companies to determine how much money they’re losing.

Emerald Isle Realty, which manages about 700 vacation homes in the Carteret County beach community, has been keeping tabs on its losses. The company has been hearing from repeat customers who say they won’t be coming this year, and so far it’s added up to 29 nights of rentals and $20,000 in revenue.

“I’ve been with this company for 15 years, and this is the first time we’ve had something like this,” director of reservations Katrina Brienza said. “It is very unfortunate to hear.”

Emerald Isle Realty has voiced opposition to House Bill 2, and Brienza said employees make sure customers concerned about the law know that. Still, she said, “we’ve had a few people who said they’re going to vacation in Georgia,” where the governor vetoed a similar bill viewed as discriminatory.

Brienza worries losses could mount further if negative perceptions of North Carolina continue. Her company has a strict cancellation policy, so nearly all of the families that already booked vacations are sticking around – but next year might be different.

In Wrightsville Beach, Blockade Runner Beach Resort owner Mary Baggett has also been hearing from families who are changing their plans. One family that had planned a four-night stay at the hotel is heading instead to the “more progressive state of South Carolina,” she said, describing the conversation to the Lumina News.

The Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau, which markets New Hanover County destinations, has received 12 to 15 emails from tourists expressing concerns about House Bill 2. The organization issurveying hotels and rental agencies to determine how much impact the law is having, according to spokeswoman Connie Nelson.

A few hours north on the Outer Banks – home to the state’s most popular beaches among out-of-state visitors – the visitors bureau did a survey shortly after the law was passed. It found 25 canceled bookings from HB2 opponents and three new bookings from people who said they wanted to come to North Carolina because they support the law. The survey hasn’t been updated in recent weeks.

“I wouldn’t categorize what I’ve heard as a major hit,” visitors bureau executive director Lee Nettles said, adding that the effect is “more negative than positive for sure.”

“It’s very difficult to gauge what the long-term effects are going to be.”

Some smaller tourism destinations haven’t seen much impact from House Bill 2. Tourism agency directors in Brunswick and Watauga counties said they’ve heard no feedback from lodging businesses or visitors about the law.

Asheville tourism officials, however, have seen the highest volume of negative feedback about the law. That’s not surprising given that the artsy mountain city has long been a mecca for liberals.

“I’ve received emails from 60 individuals who said that they’ve changed their plans to visit Asheville,” said Stephanie Brown, executive director of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.

Asheville is working on marketing that distances the city from perceptions that the state is unfriendly to LGBT people. “Our response to this is to develop strategies and tools to communicate Asheville’s core values of being an accepting community that values self-expression,” Brown said, adding that she’s working on a new website and videos.

Asheville draws about 10 million visitors a year for an estimated economic impact of $1.7 billion. “We’re concerned about anything that impacts tourism,” she said.

In May, N.C. Governor Pat McCrory read a six-minute statement to state and national news media at the Executive Mansion defending House Bill 2. He also called on Congress to also clarify what he said were uncertainties about who is protected under

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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