Despite battle over politics, Florida tourism rolls on
By Tariro Mzezewa
For months leading up to Jean Franco Rivera’s one-year wedding anniversary, he had the perfect plan to celebrate: Travel to Disney World and go on all his favorite rides with his 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 they felt somewhat concerned about traveling to a state that had passed legislation targeting LGBTQ people in recent months.
But in the end, they went.
And on a recent Saturday, they were just part of the usual throng of people at the Orlando, Florida, theme park, waiting in line for Space Mountain, Guardians of the Galaxy and Jean Franco’s favorite ride, Flight of Passage. At Disney World that day, you would never have known that the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP and the LGBTQ organization Equality Florida had all recently issued warnings telling people to reconsider coming to Florida because of the policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican lawmakers.
I had traveled to Florida in the wake of the NAACP’s advisory to see whether the warnings had any effect. The Riveras and other travelers told me that while they were against many laws recently passed in Florida, they didn’t feel that canceling their vacations would help anyone — or change the policies. In fact, several travelers said that they visited Disney and certain parts of Florida to get away from politics.
“Coming to Disney, especially, is like entering a safe zone,” said Stephanie Kate Jones, who was visiting the park from Wales in the United Kingdom. “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 seemed to have little or no impact on tourism numbers.
“Travel has always transcended politics,” said Stacy Ritter, the president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale, the Fort Lauderdale tourism organization. “People have always traveled to places where they don’t agree with the politics because they want to see something new, different. They want an experience. They want a vacation.”
DeSantis vs. Disney
DeSantis, who was overwhelmingly reelected in 2022, has introduced socially conservative policies, from the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” education bill limiting gender and sex education to the decision to bar the teaching of Advanced Placement African American history because it was a form of “indoctrination” to a tough crackdown on unauthorized immigration.
DeSantis, who recently entered the 2024 presidential race, has also been in a dispute with Disney since last year, when the company said it would pause political donations in Florida because of the sex education bill. The two sides then began battling for control of the board that oversees Disney World’s development, with 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 scrapping a $1 billion development in Orlando.
While announcing his candidacy for presidency, DeSantis said that the NAACP advisory was “a total farce.” The travel warnings, he said, were a political stunt. “These left wing groups have been doing it for many, many years. And at the end of the day, what they’re doing is colluding with legacy media to try to manufacture a narrative,” he said.
But Brandon Wolf, the press secretary of Equality Florida, said that the organization has received an increasing number of inquiries about whether it is safe for LGBTQ travelers to go to Florida. “We felt it imperative that we answer the incoming inquiries honestly and completely,” he said.
In announcing LULAC’s advisory, the group’s president, Domingo Garcia, had warned that “DeSantis’ enforcement regulations will treat us like criminals, transporting a dangerous person who only wanted to visit family or enjoy Disney World.”
And Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP said in an email in response to DeSantis’ comments: “As long as our contributions to this country and the powerful stories of our rich backgrounds, continued struggle and survival are denied, Black Americans need not pour our labor, time, or money into the state.”
The Sunshine State Juggernaut
Florida is a tourism juggernaut. In 2022, it had 137.6 million visitors, the most in its history, according to Visit Florida, the state tourism organization, and in May the governor’s office proudly shared that Florida welcomed 37.9 million people in the first three months of this year.
Orlando remains the most-visited city in the United States — 74 million people traveled there in 2022. According to Visit Florida, in 2021, visitors to the state contributed $101.9 billion to Florida’s economy and supported more than 1.7 million Florida jobs.
While many Floridians said that travel warnings from civil rights organizations have symbolic meaning, few said they were concerned that people would stop visiting the state altogether. Some people recalled the backlash over North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill,” which kept transgender people from using bathrooms that aligned with their gender. The fallout over that bill was immediate and significant, leading to its repeal.
Nicolas Graf, associate dean at New York University’s School of Professional Studies’ Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, said a state’s policies might keep those who are politically active from visiting a destination, but “the notion that travelers — business or leisure travelers — will really change their behavior due to politics, I think that’s a minority of people.”
A More Welcoming Stance
The advisories come after years of work by tourism officials across the state to expand its visitor base. In 2021, for example, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau announced that it had changed its name to Visit Lauderdale and it had a new flashy tagline: “Everyone Under the Sun.”
Visit Lauderdale was just one of several tourism boards in the state that, in the past decade, have recognized that international, Black, Latino and LGBTQ travelers have the discretionary income to spend on vacations and real estate and that it would be smart to appeal to them.
But these days, tourism boards, destination marketing organizations and travel businesses around the state are trying to figure out how to keep appealing to a diverse range 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 into a hotel or resort, a percentage of what they pay for their stay goes to fund the work done by visitors’ and tourism organizations. That tax is controlled by state statute. Leaders of three destination marketing organizations, all asking to speak anonymously, said that while they do not support the recently enacted laws they are worried that criticizing DeSantis publicly could lead to retaliation by the Legislature, which could cut back or eliminate funding for their organizations.
Jen Cousins, the co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project and a mother of four who is part of a federal suit challenging the sex education bill, said she believes that players in the travel industry, including cruises, airlines, destination marketing organizations and others, should speak up against the recent legislation. She also noted that in meetings with the education secretary, Miguel Cardona; the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Adm. Rachel Levine; and the secretary of health and human services, Xavier Becerra, she and other activists were told they had the support in Washington, but, she said, “no one has stepped in.” The Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment.
Ritter, the president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale, was willing to go on the record. “Do I think the impact will be felt immediately? No, I don’t,” she said.
But, she said, she’s already seeing business and corporate travelers, who make up a significant part of the travel industry, look elsewhere. In the week after the civil rights organizations issued their warnings, seven large conferences and conventions walked back their plans to be in Fort Lauderdale, she said. Many event organizers, Ritter said, are looking ahead to events happening three to five years from now and far fewer are considering Florida. Her organization isn’t even bidding for certain events because they feel like a lost cause.
“And that’s directly related to state policies,” she said.