Agents predict chilling effect from Bermuda's same-sex marriage repeal

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Bermuda, Horseshoe Bay Beach
Horseshoe Bay Beach in Bermuda. Photo Credit: Alexander Sviridov/Shutterstock

One year after same-sex marriage was legalized in Bermuda, it was abolished earlier this month, a move that travel agents predicted would chill tourism to the island from both non-LGBT travelers and members of the LGBT community.

The repeal of same-sex marriage comes on the heels of two record years of tourism for Bermuda, which saw 182,439 arrivals in 2017, up 11% year over year, and $320 million in leisure spending, up 20% year over year, according to the Bermuda Tourism Authority (BTA). 2017 was a particularly good year because the island hosted the 35th America's Cup.

Historically, Bermuda has not been an LGBT-friendly destination, said Mark Steward, owner of the Virtuoso agency Jet Set Tourism in Raleigh, N.C. But when same-sex marriage was legalized, there was some interest from the LGBT community in the Northeast because it offered an easy-to-get-to beach destination.

However, with the repeal, interest in Bermuda from LGBT travelers will likely dry up, he said. In fact, Steward said there would likely be a chilling effect on the entire demographic Bermuda is currently targeting: people under age 45.

"Those under-45-year-old people are not going to be excited about coming to an island that does not welcome all their friends," he said.

Jerry Desmarais, an LGBT specialist at the Dream Vacations franchise in Wilton Manors, Fla., also predicted an impact on tourism.

"Personally, I wouldn't send anybody there," he said.

John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), called the repeal "surprising" and "unfortunate."

"I don't think the battle is over," Tanzella said. "I do think, moving forward, this will change over time because the world is changing. If they want to continue to flourish in tourism, they need to be open and welcoming to all walks of tourism."

Bermuda's tourism authority has been supportive of LGBT travelers, and last year it became a member of the IGLTA, Tanzella said. He also pointed out that Bermuda has protections in place for people on the basis of sexual orientation, and its laws are more gay-friendly than those of some other islands.

"It's a step backward, but we're in no position -- or have any interest -- to call for a boycott of Bermuda," Tanzella said. "There certainly are a lot of LGBT citizens there and people who work there, and boycotts never help solve problems. Our position is always more to try and work with the tourism office and the government to change policies."

Kevin Dallas, the CEO of the island's tourism authority, said his organization has rebranded and repositioned Bermuda in front of a younger set of travelers over the past three years. Those travelers are more diverse: increasingly nonwhite and not heterosexual.

He acknowledged that Bermuda is facing a spate of negative headlines surrounding the abolishment of same-sex marriage. While it's too soon to tell what impact that might have on tourism, Dallas said the authority has received some emails from travelers saying they are going elsewhere in light of the news. The destinations they name, though, tend to not be gay-friendly, he said.

"Travel can have a transformative effect," Dallas said. "The notion of a boycott, of cutting yourself off from a community and a society that is struggling with this issue, just strikes me as completely counterintuitive to what we're trying to achieve.

"I think from the U.S. same-sex marriage debate, we know that nothing goes further in changing people's minds about LGBT people than engagement with them -- knowing them, seeing that they are normal, happy, healthy families like any other, wins hearts and minds."

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