In Anchorage, cars skid over snow-packed streets. Alaska is in the midst of a recession, and it shows in the way the roads are plowed, say locals.
But Anchorage could soon shoot itself in the foot when it comes to a major driver of its local economy. Voters will decide by mail on Proposition 1, the most extreme anti-transgender bathroom measure the country has seen yet.
Prop. 1 mandates that people must use gendered bathrooms that correspond with their original birth certificates, even if they have updated documents or have lived for years as another gender.
Votes that favor bigotry tend to hit economies hard.
“There’s a lot of options out there. Alaska is an amazing option by all means,” says John Tanzella, President and CEO of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association. “But people may say, they don’t want our business, we’ll go somewhere else”
It’s not just LGBTQ travelers who may shy away from visiting the Great White North. After North Carolina passed its bathroom bill two years ago, the state suffered dramatic economic losses as concerts and sporting events avoided the state. The Associated Press estimated that the bill would cost the North Carolina $3.76 billion in losses over a dozen years.
Tourists trek to Alaska from across the globe, and according to Visit Anchorage, the city’s tourism organization, visitors bring in $2.24 billion in spending and 39,000 jobs. Its tourism industry is a consistent economic driver for the state. About nine percent of Alaskans are employed in the tourism industry, according to Visit Anchorage.
The organization looked at the fallout in North Carolina when deciding to come out against Prop. 1.
“In 2018, Visit Anchorage has set a goal to book $115M in future meetings and conventions–we don’t believe Anchorage can afford to lose any part of that business,” the organization said in a statement.
Visit Anchorage is also joined by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce in Condemning the measure.
Julie Saupe, president and CEO of Visit Anchorage, says her organization worries that Prop. 1 would not only scare off travelers but major events.
“This type of legislation has proved detrimental to tourism destinations across the country so we’re very concerned about the potential,” Saupe says. “Meeting planners, from what we’ve observed in North Carolina and then the discussions that were taking place in Texas [where a bathroom bill failed], meeting planners said, ‘yeah we can’t bring our meeting to a destination that supports this type of discriminatory legislation.’”
That could be a hard pill to swallow for Tim Stallard. His travel company Out in Alaska offers adventure trips that cater to the LGBTQ community.
Stallard is firmly against Prop. 1., and a boycott against Anchorage would inevitably hurt his business. Like so many in Anchorage, Stallard is a transplant from “the lower 48.” He fell in love with the city, with all it offered in outdoor activities. He feels comfortable and accepted as a gay man, even though Alaska is a conservative place.
He sits in a bright bakery in a mostly residential part of town and talks openly about how it seems like LGBTQ tours have more fun than their straight counterparts.
But LGBTQ travelers have some hangups about visiting Alaska, he says.
“I think we kind of already potentially have an image issue with LGBT travelers,” Stallard tells INTO. “They don’t see what Alaska is about. They picture hunting and guns, fishing and outdoors, and they might not be sure if it’s a safe place for them, which it is in fact.”
But then the reality of Prop. 1 remains. And everyone from Stallard to Saupe to the Fair Anchorage Campaign, which is fighting the measure, appears unable to predict which way the vote will go. The best guess is that it has a 50/50 shot at passing.
The future of Anchorage and its economy may hang in the balance. A report by the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation reported the city’s economic forecast down by .7 percent with a 1.4 percent loss of jobs in 2017 and further losses expected this year.
That same report notes that Anchorage is the center of Alaska’s events and conferences. Last year, the city hosted 441 meetings and conventions, 47 sporting events and 47 trade shows.
Those numbers suggest that not only Anchorage but Alaska may have a lot to lose from a Prop. 1 boycott. And Stallard notes, it’s not just LGBTQ people who would exit plans in the city.
“Most straight millennials,” he says, “don’t want to go to a place that’s transphobic.”
Image byCarl Johnson / Design Pics