Gay groups divided over Fla. boycott threat

By Henry Magenheim and Mark Chesnut

MIAMI -- The local chapter of Act Up, an international AIDS activist organization, called for a gay and lesbian tourism boycott of Florida in response to budget cuts in the state's AIDS- and HIV-related programs.

But the effect of the move is problematic.

So far, no other organizations have expressed public support for the boycott.

The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), a network of travel professionals based in Fort Lauderdale, believes a boycott of the state "would be counter-productive and unrealistic," according to its executive director, Robert Wilson.

"Gay-friendly suppliers are not in business to create controversy," he said.

He identified Greater Miami, Greater Fort Lauderdale, Key West, Orlando and Tampa as areas with numerous gay-friendly suppliers that would be hurt if a boycott took hold.

Eric Sawyer, a spokesman for Act Up/New York, said he expected his group to support the boycott, but said the New York City chapter would make a statement on Aug. 5.

Regarding concerns about gay businesses suffering from a boycott, Sawyer said, "Act Up/New York is all about protecting the needs of people with AIDS and not gay business owners, so if that's an unfortunate consequence, that's an unfortunate consequence."

At the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, Bill Anderson, director of marketing research, said the economic impact of gay travel spending is significant, noting that gay travelers have much disposable income and spend it freely.

The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, according to a spokeswoman, "never favors" linking a travel boycott to politics.

Bureau officials reported 670,000 gay travelers stayed in Broward County during 2001, spending about $600 million.

"There are other ways to make a point, without alienating so many people," said Steve Smith, gay tourism marketing manager for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

Empathy but no action from industry

MIAMI -- "I have mixed feelings about [the call for a boycott]," said Tom Roth, president of the Travel Alternatives Group (TAG), an agency consortium that focuses on the gay and lesbian market.

"But, generally, I would not recommend to our TAG member travel agents that they support a boycott of Florida [because], although it may send a signal to the government officials of Florida about the power of the gay [market], the real downside is that there is a tremendous gay infrastructure in Florida that would be hurt more than anything else, and I don't believe that that is the intention of a boycott."

The Act Up boycott has been "getting some local press," according to Paul Kowalewski, vice president and general manager of All Horizons Rancho Travel in Los Altos, Calif. But he was unsure what effect it would have.

"In principle, boycotts are a good thing," he said. "I support them. My guess is [Florida's state government] would react faster to economic news than to political pressure. But it depends on the number of people participating; one is never sure who will participate."

Lucy Hirleman, of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J., predicted the effect of the boycott would be "nothing."

"Here's the mindset of people: If you want to go somewhere and it's in your budget and it has what you need, most times ... people do what they want to do."

Still, Hirleman said that "if I know a client is politically active, I might bring it up just so he can't say later I didn't let him know."

She also said gay-friendly and gay-owned businesses would be hurt by a boycott. "There are an awful lot of gay-owned businesses down there. Their livelihood is at stake. ... Are you going to put all of these people out of business?"

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