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Lauderdale mayor's comments don't appear to reduce interest, officials say
When Colorado voters wiped out legal protections for gays, Aspen's annual gay ski week suffered. A similar boycott ensued when the Cayman Islands turned away a shipload of gay cruise passengers.Tourism officials doubt if such a fate awaits Fort Lauderdale after Mayor Jim Naugle's string of comments about homosexuality that inflamed the gay community and others. The area is too well established as a gay tourist destination for Naugle's views to hurt, they said.
"The Fort Lauderdale business community is strong enough to weather this," said David Paisley, with San Francisco-based Community Marketing Inc., which tracks gay tourism and marketing.
In the past month, Naugle has charged the city has a problem with gay sex in public restrooms, said gays are unhappy and contended the gay Stonewall Library should not be housed in a city building because its collection contains pornography.
In follow-up comments shortly before last week's demonstration against him, he said the county should stop marketing itself to gay tourists because of the high rate of HIV infections in the area.
Fort Lauderdale ranks as the most popular resort destination for gay tourists, ahead of both the Palm Springs and Napa Valley areas of California, according to Community Marketing's most recent travel survey. The area was sixth among overall leisure destinations.
Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, acknowledged angst among tourism-related businesses about the Naugle blowup, but she said there has been no effect.
She said she has checked with her national offices and found no cancellations. Still, she is reaching out to travel planners to reinforce the area's image as welcoming to all and is monitoring news reports nationally to see if coverage becomes widespread.
"The impact of Naugle's comments should be zero because I don't think his comments are reflective of the destination or its commitment to bringing all business to Broward County," Grossman said.
Jerry Newcombe, senior producer of the Coral Ridge Hour at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, said Naugle's concerns about gay tourism, HIV and public sex should be taken seriously. He said out-of-town tourists could be returning home infected with HIV after having anonymous sex in Fort Lauderdale.
"Mayor Naugle is standing for common sense and decency," Newcombe said. "He is a profile in courage and I respect him a great deal for that."
An estimated 950,000 gays visited Broward last year and spent $1 billion, according to the visitors bureau. That makes it a major part of the area's tourism-based economy, considering 10.4 million people overall visited the area and spent $8.8 billion.
The gay market is also considered one of the most reliable. It was the first segment to recover after the 2001 terrorist attacks and Grossman credits it with helping fuel the development of upscale hotels in Broward County.
The gains from gay tourism aren't limited to businesses that specialize in gay travelers. About 41 percent of gay visitors to the Fort Lauderdale area stay in mainstream hotels, 29 percent in gay resorts and the rest in a variety of lodgings from motels to friends' homes, the Community Marketing survey showed.
Nor is gay tourism simply leisure traffic. The county has hosted a series of gay-oriented conventions in recent years.
The fight nationally for gay tourism has become extremely competitive, with a city like Philadelphia launching targeted ad campaigns for the first time. But Jerry McHugh, with Community Marketing, said more than the comments of one lone official are required to damage a long-standing reputation.
Richard Gray, owner of the gay Royal Palms resort off Fort Lauderdale's beach and a member of the county Tourist Development Council, said none of his guests have raised concerns about Naugle. Nor has he had any cancellations. He said publicity about Naugle could boost gay tourism.
"If anything," he said, "it will remind people that Fort Lauderdale is one of the gayest cities in the United States."
Scott Wyman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4511.