Chapel Hill: Opinion

Laurie Paolicelli: House Bill 2 has hurt Orange County’s tourism industry


House Bill 2 will affect the quality of life in Chapel Hill and Orange County in innumerable ways. But one way that will broadly affect all of us is the damage this bill will bring – and, indeed, already has – to tourism.

Tourism is one of the most powerful engines driving the economy in Orange County; without it our tax base and our businesses will suffer.

We know what brings people here: it’s the magic of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and historical Hillsborough. It’s the rolling, cow-studded country hills. It’s our food and music and film.

But there’s something else, too. There’s an undeniable magic to this place. There’s a respect for the individual, a presiding spirit that encourages people to be themselves, loaf about, feel safe, feel free, be open and embrace the qualities that make one unique. We’ve been a leader fighting for freedom of speech, marriage equality for all, domestic partner benefits, civil rights, and human rights.

With a single signature in an emergency session of the legislature, we’re in danger of losing the magic and the great invisible industry we call tourism.

A massive furniture expo that brings billions of dollars to North Carolina's economy each year has confirmed that HB2 is threatening its business. Mayors of New York, San Francisco, Seattle and West Palm Beach, Florida, have cited the law in banning non-essential travel to North Carolina by their employees. Area hotels are seeing cancellations. The Carolina Inn reported an immediate cancellation of $16,000 in future business, and meeting planners at UNC have contacted the Visitors Bureau, fearful of the negative impact this legislation is having on visiting groups to UNC.

Meeting planners have contacted the Visitors Bureau in fear:

“The grant I work on involves collaboration with state health departments in all 50 states and U.S. territories. I have two upcoming programs that we already know will have to be moved out of North Carolina because several other state teams reported they are now banned from traveling to our state. I am holding event space with the Friday Center and an area hotel for August that will probably need to be cancelled as we will have to hold the meeting in another state. The same is true for a program we are planning in the fall.” – the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“I was filled with very mixed emotions when Chapel Hill/Orange County was announced as the location for next year's North American Travel Journalist conference. While I loved my visit to Chapel Hill and the surrounding area, I am heartbroken and angry at North Carolina’s actions. I have previously written articles encouraging travelers not to judge individual cities by the actions of their state; however, this is becoming much harder in North Carolina. By removing the local policies that once protected LGBT residents and visitors in Chapel Hill and opening the doors to legal discrimination, HB2 has made visiting Chapel Hill a questionable action.” – Troy Petenbrink, writer with The Gay Traveler magazine and The Travel Channel

It’s hard to project the immediate and long-term effect that this bill will have on the travel industry or the potential jobs that could be lost.

But even sadder is the message that has been communicated to the people who love North Carolina so much: in essence we are spewing hate, fear and repulsion at members of our society who look to us to educate, accept and celebrate differences. They look to Chapel Hill to fight for human rights, inclusion and social justice.

“We almost cancelled the Southern LGBT lawyers meeting in Carrboro due to HB2 and I had great pressure to do so. But we finally decided that since one of the purposes of our meeting was to strategize about how to fight this law and similar ones in other states, it was more important for us to be here than not. But we did cancel meeting on the UNC campus and have made sure that all the businesses we are using are either LGBT or LGBT supportive.” – Sharon Thompson, attorney, Nicholson Pham Law Offices.

This law will be repealed one day, I’m sure of that; I just hope it isn’t too late.

Laurie Paolicelli is the director of community relations and tourism for Orange County.