(CNN) –Florida boasts hundreds of miles of beaches, warm temperatures year-round, and is home to Walt Disney World, the world’s most famous theme park.
Tourism is a major driver of the state’s economy, bringing in an estimated $101.6 billion, according to Visit Florida, as well as supporting over a million jobs. But political battles that have been heating up in recent months could cast a shadow over the Sunshine State’s tourism appeal.
A recent travel advisory by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) warning that “Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans” is one of several advisories issued by minority groups. Equality Florida, the Human Rights Campaign, and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have also cautioned against travel, citing a host of laws that demonstrate how the state is “hostile” to the communities they represent.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who officially announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Wednesday, has implemented a conservative agenda while in office, including bans on teaching about critical race theory, sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and loosening restrictions on concealed-carry weapons.
While it’s too soon to say whether the tense political climate will have a substantial impact on the state’s tourism industry, some travelers are factoring advisories and policies into their decisions. Some industry experts say the advisories could backfire – hurting minority groups who make their living through tourism.
‘Travel boycotts often impact the wrong people’
Matt Berna, Intrepid Travel president and managing director for the Americas, said his company “unequivocally condemns Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent policies,” but that Intrepid doesn’t believe in travel boycotts.
“While the intention behind a boycott in Florida is to do the right thing, the reality is that travel boycotts often impact the wrong people. Travel boycotts often isolate vulnerable people even more, including many of our close partner BIPOC owned businesses that rely on those tourist dollars and are by no means hostile in their approach to other BIPOC travelers.”
The Future of Black Tourism, Blacks in Travel & Tourism and the Black Travel Alliance also criticized the travel warnings saying they would hurt Black businesses.
“The NAACP’s travel advisory contradicts with the efforts of industry organizations and initiatives such as the Future of Black Tourism, Blacks in Travel & Tourism, Black Travel Alliance, and others that have been intentionally working to level the playing field for small Black businesses in Florida and across the country,” they said in a joint statement on Monday.
“The efforts of these organizations have led more Black travelers and others to be intentional in seeking out and doing business with Black businesses in the industry to help sustain and scale this underrepresented segment of travel and tourism,” the statement added.
Kelley Robinson, president of Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ+ equality, has criticized DeSantis and “his frenzied appeal to extremists.” Robinson said the organization saw issuing an advisory as a duty “to provide guidance to our community.”
DeSantis called the advisories “a political stunt” on Wednesday during the announcement of his candidacy on Twitter Spaces.
He said Florida has just had its highest quarter for tourism in its history, “and our view is we want everybody to succeed regardless of their skin color.”
Dana Young – president and CEO of Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing corporation – echoed calling advisories a “political stunt” that would impact the hardworking hospitality professionals in Florida.
“It is disappointing when partisan organizations attempt to weaponize travel in pursuit of political ends. Travel advisories issued with blatant factual misrepresentations are a disservice to the traveling public and are disrespectful to the incredibly diverse visitors and residents that are proud to call Florida home,” Young said in the statement, adding that “Florida had the largest market share of any state in the country among African American vacationers with 21.4%” last year.
‘I’ve consciously stopped traveling to Florida’
There are some would-be visitors who refuse to travel to Florida while DeSantis and his politics remain as they are.
David Wagner of Pennsylvania is one of them.
“Every week, there’s new legislation more shocking than the last, and I’m genuinely concerned about the legislative changes driven by the Florida Governor’s office. These changes appear politically motivated and don’t seem to align with the wishes of the majority of residents - and I have a huge problem with this trend generally in our politics,” Wagner says.
“It’s alarming to see more and more representative offices become partisan battlegrounds instead of serving the needs of the people. As much as I adore Miami and usually visit Florida three to four times a year, I’ve consciously stopped traveling to Florida to express my opposition.”
While the travel advisories may be making headline news, there’s no indication yet that they will translate into less tourism traffic on the ground.
In 2022, Florida welcomed 137.6 million visitors, the most in the state’s history, according to Visit Florida estimates. Just last week, the governor’s office touted that the state attracted a record 37.9 million visitors between January and March 2023.
Scott Keyes, founder of Going.com – an airfare tracking site – says he’s seen no impact so far in demand for flights to Miami or Orlando, both in the top 10 for US tourist destinations.
“Florida has seen insatiable demand for travel, especially in the past few years, and that doesn’t appear to be reversing,” he said.
Furthermore, big destinations such as Tampa and Orange County, where Orlando is located, have been quick to mitigate any fallout by making it known that all tourists will be welcome.
The day after the NAACP issued its advisory, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor tweeted: “As Mayor of Tampa, I can absolutely assure anyone and everyone considering a visit or move to Tampa that they will be welcomed with open arms. Diversity and inclusion are central to what makes Tampa one of America’s greatest and friendliest cities. That will never change, regardless of what happens in Tallahassee.”
Similarly, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’ Office issued a statement saying, “Hate is never welcome here. We look forward to working with the NAACP to reassure them and others that Orange County is a caring, compassionate and welcoming community.”
‘The politics don’t help’
The travel advisories have made some minority communities more determined to travel to Florida.
New York resident, Michael Galbe, who had booked his travel before the advisories were released, said he never considered changing his plans.
“I especially feel like I want to be MORE out and proud in Miami to give visibility to the gay tourism dollar,” said Galbe.
But dings to the state’s tourism credentials may end up being more of a trickle than a flow, and may fall on both sides of the political divide.
Pete Werner, owner of Dreams Unlimited Travel, a Disney-centric travel company based in Orlando, says his business hasn’t seen many cancellations but “the handful that have, have been people who don’t like Disney’s politics, or LGBTQ+ travelers who don’t want to spend their money in Florida.”
Disney has been in a long-running feud with Florida’s governor since the company objected to legislation that DeSantis signed last spring dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It restricted the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
Werner sees the travel advisories as political hyperbole on both sides but says, “the politics don’t help.”
He attributes most of the decline he’s seen in bookings to Disney World as a reaction to the company’s increase in prices, rather than their politics, because his bookings for Disney Cruise ships have doubled since last year.
Where Werner does see cause for concern is with international visitors, who he says have been hurt by the increase in prices and strong dollar, and who have voiced concerns to him about gun violence and Florida’s lax gun laws.
As a Florida resident, though, Werner says nothing has changed. “I’m a gay man, I’ve lived in Orlando since 1998, while I don’t feel my government is very welcoming or accepting of me, my life on the ground hasn’t changed.”
‘There is concern about what will happen next’
Other Floridians agree that they haven’t noticed any big changes in tourism yet, but some are concerned about where the state may be heading.
Kristen Panebianco, a 31-year-old woman who lives in Miami, says she sees the travel advisories as “less about minority groups being in more danger in Florida, but as organizations taking a stand against an extremist viewpoint that seems to be taking hold in the state.”
She explains how DeSantis’ crackdown on things such as drag shows – through his signing of SB 1438 – diverts attention from the real issues at play in the state, such as gun legislation. “Men dressed up as women on the street is not dangerous to children and families, but guns are.”
“What makes Miami particularly special is how diverse and eclectic it is. People are worried that there is a small minority of people who are making decisions that are not necessarily representative of the state, trying to whitewash it, and there is concern about what will happen next, especially when it comes to schools and legislation,” Panebianco adds.
African-American travel blogger Jameela Malcolm, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and blogs about places to see throughout the state, says she’s seen no impact to her business so far.
While she is concerned about how these advisories could affect her community, she says she’s determined to not let it impact her ability to travel.
Malcolm says she wants to encourage others to follow her lead and come “explore the various communities and cultures that make Florida beautiful.”