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In the past eight months, I traveled to two Pride experiences and had very different experiences. Last Fall, I attended a small-town celebration in a rural part of Ohio. While waiting for singer Paula Cole to come on stage, I caught myself scanning the streets on either side of us.
What I realized was that, almost subconsciously, I was looking for an escape route or a hiding place should an active shooter appear. Especially given the growing attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and the increase in gun violence in every corner of America, it’s a real concern for my family.
That contrasted with a lovely trip to Australia a few months ago for World Pride, the first ever held in the Southern Hemisphere. Attending multiple public marches and concerts and events, I realized that I felt safer than I have in many years—not just because of Australia’s wide acceptance of queer people, but because that country has successfully battled the proliferation of guns in its society.
At last week’s IPW event, the elephant in the room was finally called out. A Canadian journalist, during the U.S. Travel Association’s press conference, explained that our country’s current situation has affected people he knew. He told Geoff Freeman, President and CEO of U.S. Travel that the “gun violence and the gun laws—or lack of them” had caused people he knows to be afraid to travel to the U.S. In addition, he said that he personally knows journalists who did not come to this year’s IPW because of that very reason.
The atmosphere in the room took a distinct turn, and I wondered how Freeman would respond, being put in such a difficult position. He told the assembled journalists, many from overseas:
“The issue is obviously one that is heartbreaking for and gut-wrenching for many Americans; one that many of us struggle with. I guess what I would say about it is that public safety and travel go hand in hand. There is no way to increase travel if people have concerns about public safety. So, one way or another, if our goal is to strengthen travel. If our goal is to strengthen the economy, in one way or another we need to find solutions to public safety problems that give people confidence. Those are discussions we’re having—those are discussions we will continue to have.”
I appreciated Freeman’s attempt as he tried to tiptoe through this proverbial minefield. But the fact that we’re even having this discussion strikes me as more than a little insane.
Let’s remember that gun violence isn’t just a problem in the mass shooting sense, but it’s a continual problem in our big cities, too. This is another aspect that’s keeping international tourists away from cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and other urban destinations. Both mass shootings and big city gun violence get plenty of coverage on international news channels.
Let’s look at Chicago. Politicians on the right love to use its frequent gun violence as some sort of proof that stronger gun laws (like those in the state of Illinois or in the city of Chicago) don’t work. This is disingenuous at best. Have these folks never driven from one state to another? I’ve driven from Gary, Indiana to Chicago many times in my life—as well as from various Chicago suburbs into the city—and never once have I had to stop for any sort of border control where agents search my car for weapons. Because that doesn’t exist between states. So, if Indiana (or Wyoming or Texas or North Dakota for that matter) has vastly different gun laws than Chicago, the net result is that the city will eventually see results based on the weakest gun laws.
I understand that politicians in large cities are trying to do something, and therefore pass local gun laws to appeal to their constituents. But Chicago’s example doesn’t prove anything beyond the need to have a national discussion about gun laws. Federal laws are vastly more meaningful in a country like ours.
It’s time the travel industry stepped up in this area.
Inbound tourism is estimated to be worth a trillion dollars to our country. From travel agents to airlines to hotels to tourism operators, we’re all dependent on those visitors to keep our industry afloat, especially in difficult economic times.
We can’t allow this culture of unchecked gun worship to continue, keeping an ever-growing number of visitors away from our shores. Now is the time for the travel industry to add to the push for meaningful gun reform to keep us safe—and to keep our industry sustainable.
The more mass shootings continue to happen and the rampant gun violence occurs in major markets, the more it hurts a destination’s chances of having someone visit, thus impacting jobs and local economies.
Paul J. Heney is a lifelong writer and avid world traveler. He's served as Editorial Director for several hospitality...
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