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Croatia’s anti-gay referendum is an economic own goal

Can an Eastern European economy dependent on tourism afford to annoy LGBTI travelers with a constitutional ban on gay and lesbian marriage?

Croatia’s anti-gay referendum is an economic own goal

A few years ago I spent a fantastic day exploring the truly amazing medieval city of Dubrovnik, one of the most stunning walled cities on the Mediterranean.

Along with 2,500 other gay people from an RSVP cruise liner I spent loads of money in the shops and restaurants and I even took a high speed boat ride into the bay to get the best possible view of the city.

Good news for Croatia, whose economy, is dominated by tourism. More than 20% of the country’s GDP comes from tourism, its biggest industry and the route back to economic prosperity most favored by its government.

But there’s a problem brewing. On 1 December Croatians will have the chance to vote in a referendum which will enshrine, within the country’s constitution, the definition of marriage as ‘a life union of a woman and a man’. The referendum is a direct response to the Croatian government’s announcement in 2011 it would legislate to allow legal recognition of gay unions.

According to the rules, you need just 10% of the population to trigger a referendum. Over 750,000 Croatians signed the petition, that’s around 20% of Croatian adults. Although the government is strongly opposed to the referendum, the chances are that it will receive a majority when it is put to the national vote.

Now, if this happens it will be a setback for gay rights in Croatia. But it will also be a blow for Croatia’s economy.

Gay people are great for tourist economies. Usually without children, we have more disposable income, we travel more than our straight friends, we spend more when we are on holiday and we can travel all year round without worrying about school holidays.

This last bit is particularly important for destinations that rely on tourism because we can fill those half-empty hotels during school term times.

GETA (the Gay European Tourism Association) estimates gay Europeans spend over €50 billion ($68 billion) each year on tourism alone. Americans spend around $64 billion (€47 billion) according to US research. We are a very valuable market.

Smart destinations recognize this. Look how Stockholm, Reykjavik, Berlin, Vienna and London go out of their way to welcome us. Visit Britain, the UK’s national tourism promotion agency, is just about to launch a huge gay marketing campaign following-on from the recent gay marriage legislation.

Parts of Croatia’s tourism industry understands this too. GETA’s gay travellers’ website, which has the most comprehensive listing of gay and gay friendly hotels in Europe, has over 50 hotels in Croatia. Friendly Croatia is a great local website for gay travellers. So we know that gay tourism features in this country’s mix.

But look what happens when you upset us. Just last week gay cruise firm Atlantis announced that it will be taking St Petersburg off its Baltic cruise itinerary for 2014. Most gays will be boycotting the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year. Russia’s attack on gay rights has had repercussions on its tourism industry and its international reputation.

Now, Russia relies on oil and natural resources to survive so the impact of this on its economy is not so great. But Croatia relies on tourism. And this is a problem for Croatia. Why should gay people go to places that make it clear we are not welcome when there are so many other places that welcome us with open arms?

To those Croatians who support the referendum this may seem like a good thing. They clearly don’t appreciate gay people. But they would be wrong. Because the way that you treat gay people says a lot about you. It is a part of your brand.

When I asked the marketing director of one of the main hotel chains in Las Vegas why they are so gay friendly, even to extent of funding campaigns for equal marriage rights in the state of Nevada, he told me this. Of course our gay customers are important to us but it’s about more than that. It shows the world that we are modern, liberal, friendly, welcoming. And our heterosexual guests appreciate that. The fact we are good to gay people sends a very positive message to all our guests.

So Croatian people need to consider the consequences to their economy of sending out a loud and public message that they do not believe that gay people should be treated equally. It’s not just gay people they insult. It’s not even all our families and friends. It’s every person that appreciates the way in which a modern, civilized society respects, celebrates and accommodates people’s diverse sexuality.

And the worldwide gay media is extremely alert and sensitive to any moves which seek to discriminate against gay people, so the word gets round very quickly.

Now, the irony is that many of the states surrounding Croatia probably have similar views on gay equality. But none of them have chosen to act to enshrine discrimination against same sex couples in their constitution. So Croatia has chosen to shine the spotlight on itself. At exactly the time when the new pope has decreed that it is time to move on and look elsewhere for battles to fight, Croatian people have decided to attack for one more time.

And just as Russia has more a liberal legal views on homosexuality than, say, most of the Middle Eastern states, it’s their government’s recent decision to target gay people with a law that bans ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships accessible to minors’ that has earned that country the ire of gay people worldwide.

This is the risk that Croatia faces. Its fragile tourist-based economy depends on having a friendly and welcoming brand. Marriage equality has become a touchstone of a civilized nation. Voting to enshrine in its constitution that same-sex couples should be forever denied this right sends exactly the wrong signal at a time when the flow of history is moving in a different direction.

I’m glad I saw Dubrovnik before it was too late.

Carlos Kytka is executive director of the Gay European Tourism Association.

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