Travel Should Be The Bridge -- Not The Ammo -- In America's Culture Wars

Travel Should Be The Bridge -- Not The Ammo -- In America's Culture Wars
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As strongly evidenced by last Tuesday's election, we are a divided country. But the evidence had been building for quite a while, and not just on the campaign trail: all too often, we hear calls to "boycott" an institution or place that is associated with an event deemed offensive by a group of people.

In September, the National Collegiate Athletic Association cancelled all of its upcoming events in North Carolina, owing to that state's controversial "bathroom bill" that is viewed in many quarters as discriminatory against the LGBT community. The NCAA relocated seven championship events in various sports.

Indiana was targeted in a similar LGBT-rights dispute last year, and Mississippi has been embroiled in its own such controversy. Previously, Arizona was the subject of a firestorm centered on the equally sensitive topic of immigration. No corner of the country is immune: travel often becomes a cudgel in an ideological skirmish despite -- or maybe because of -- the fact that it is a major factor in every corner of the country, on every economic level.

But it's not at all clear that travel bans and boycotts are ultimately effective at advancing the agendas of their advocates. What is clear is that boycotts have enormous potential for collateral damage -- namely to the jobs of travel and tourism workers whose livelihoods depend on visitation to their region.

The travel industry is noteworthy for its ability to provide advancement and higher earning potential to a broad spectrum of workers across the country. For one, the industry has created jobs at a faster rate than the rest of the economy since the beginning of the post-recession recovery in 2010. Travel also stands out as a sector with exceptional numbers of workers who start out in the industry's lower echelons, but work their way up to managerial and even executive positions. (I am a living testament to this: I got my own start as a lifeguard at the Marriott in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Two decades later I was that company's vice president of global marketing and sales, overseeing a workforce of 25,000.)

Travel generates $2.1 trillion each year for the U.S. economy, and is a top 10 industry in 49 states and the District of Columbia. One in nine American jobs is supported by travel-related spending. With these numbers in mind, I have to ask why, then, our industry so often lands in the crosshairs of some of the most pitched ideological battles our broad political spectrum has to offer.

When an activist picks up a megaphone and demands a boycott, they are presumably hoping to exert economic pressure upon a decision-maker to reverse or atone for some offensive action. However, one must pause to consider who bears the brunt of these calls. Even if the boycott results in a lost election, or a round of layoffs that includes the executive floor, chances are those legislators or C-Suite types are still going to be able to support their families just fine.

But that is not as clear for the waiter, front desk clerk or rental car agent who was doing OK before the onset of Boycott Inspired By Social Outrage X.

The U.S. Travel Association recently commissioned research on perceptions of travel bans and boycotts in response to the controversial LGBT rights-related legislation. According to a TNS survey of 2,500 American consumers, nearly half of all respondents did not favor such bans and boycotts -- yet 16 percent of respondents with existing travel plans to boycott-targeted states cancelled trips or traveled to another state.

A separate survey of 2,500 meetings and conventions planners, conducted by Meeting Professionals International (MPI), indicated that one quarter of planned events in boycott-targeted states were cancelled or relocated -- even though more than half of meeting planners are against using travel bans and boycotts to influence social policies.

In other words, a significant majority of the individuals whose travel spending and choices have real effects on local economies don't favor punishing those areas with bans and boycotts. However, many have cancelled or changed their plans anyway -- and those lost dollars add up. Every $1 million in sales of travel goods and services directly generates nine jobs.

Those who call for boycotts are clearly well-intentioned. But wielding travel -- and necessarily, travel jobs -- as their weapon of choice is not the answer. They, and we, would be better off by universally recognizing travel as a unifying force for good.

As Mark Twain said: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

I believe living by that maxim, rather than punishing the residents of a community for the actions of an executive or politician, is a better way to achieve meaningful change in these increasingly divisive times. For the sake of 15 million American workers whose jobs are dependent on travel, we must agree to end the calls for travel bans and boycotts once and for all. Let's instead aim to build greater understanding between diverse communities by continuing to visit, meet in and stop through areas that depend on travel and tourism--and perhaps even engaging with those who have built their lives in these places.

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