Sunday, May 28, 2006

Re-Coding the Beach Weekend

Above: Screenshots of Saturday & Sunday contrasting PNJ articles

Updated Below

Yesterday, PNJ reporter Fredie Carmichael wrote the requisite puff-piece touting the huge crowds anticipated on Pensacola Beach for the Memorial Day Weekend. The only surprise was that he explicitly mentioned "the Memorial Day weekend gay and lesbian celebrations" which have been a feature on Pensacola Beach for many decades.

Over Carmichael's article the newspaper ran a large photo of a rainbow umbrella. (See the screenshot, above). That was code, of course, for Y'all come, now!

Historically, it's been rare to see overt mention of gay and lesbian visitors by local tourism promoters. Even the media commonly spoke only in code about "crowds" and "out of town tourists" and organized "beach parties." At most, they might run a photograph or two showing a rainbow flag, kite, or umbrella.

As long as the money flowed easily no one on Pensacola Beach was particularly interested in aggressively promoting the gay and lesbian tourist trade. The attitude of even socially enlightened business owners seemed to be 'We have their business already; why spend money to promote it?"

Today, reporter Angela Fail follows up Carmichael's piece by noting that this year the crowds haven't materialized. "Get the picture?" she asks coyly.

The picture she wants us to get, no doubt, is the accompanying photograph of a small clutch of beach umbrellas at Casino Beach. (See second screen-shot, above) Only one shows the distinctive rainbow colors featured so prominently just a day earlier.

Saturday, beach businesses were eager to welcome tens of thousands of gay and lesbian tourists, but as in past years neither they nor the Santa Rosa Island Authority did anything to explicitly invite them. Now that the hoped-for crowds haven't appeared, beach businesses are scrambling to re-code the weekend into a locals-only thing. Capt'n Fun club owner Tom Carmichael wants to say, "The misconception is huge."

What 'misconception'? Well, it's nowhere explicit -- but locals will get the point. They're the only ones left who can save this weekend for beach businesses. Y'all come, now!

There's little doubt that residual hurricane damage and the still-closed Opal Beach facility of the U.S. Park Service have put off the usual crowds of gay and lesbian visitors. But it would be a mistake for beach businesses to revert permanently to the bad old days of failing to acknowledge and welcome them.

Three years ago the old pbrla.com web site noted that the "Gay Memorial Day Weekend" on Pensacola Beach traditionally has been the most lucrative weekend of the summer season.
"Hotel and restaurant workers often say that tips over Memorial Day Weekend exceed anything they see the rest of the summer. Beach rentals almost always are full. Hotels can be completely booked many months in advance. It's the one time of year when locals actually consider whether they should telephone ahead for a dinner reservation."
The article also made extensive mention of Univ. of West Florida Prof. Steven Philipp's 1999 economic study of Pensacola Beach Memorial Day titled, "Gay and Lesbian Tourists at a Southern U.S.A. Beach Event." That lengthy study, originally published by Haworth Press, involved 1,200 interviews with "gay and lesbian" visitors to Pensacola Beach over one Memorial Day weekend, plus a historical analysis going back to the 1920's about the "Gay Memorial Day Weekend" for which Pensacola Beach had become famous.

As noted at the time, Prof. Philipp's study demonstrated that gay and lesbian tourists show a "strong preference... for traveling to communities that openly welcome them and even sponsor gay-friendly events for them, as Disney World had just begun to do in the early '90s."

Another of the study's findings was that gay and lesbian visitors take "a keen interest... in local newspaper and television coverage" and "even isolated incidents of anti-gay bias can blow-back and cause severe economic adversity for an entire community."

Prof. Philipp's lengthy study offered some cause for concern for beach commerce:
"The time may be fast disappearing when Pensacola Beach businesses can take the Memorial Day Weekend trade of gays and lesbians for granted. The more welcome we make these visitors feel, the more likely they are to continue coming."

"Tourist destinations which have enjoyed substantial gay patronage in the past, without making much effort on their own to attract or sustain it, increasingly may find themselves faced with aggressive competition from other vacation destinations. Not only do gay visitors expect tolerance from their host communities, as anyone would, but more and more they prefer destinations that are willing to openly and avowedly welcome them.

"Such communities offer what Prof. Philipp describes as "tourism incentives and promotion... special attractions .... welcoming receptions by public figures, [and] positive media coverage... ."
The Island Authority and beach chamber of commerce have never really done much to encourage the gay tourist trade. They shouldn't be surprised that it has disappeared in the wake of two devastating hurricanes.

Yes, this weekend locals could do beach businesses a big favor by coming out Sunday to enjoy the surf and sand. But over the next year those who promote island tourism could do themselves and beach businesses a bigger favor by finding creative ways to openly and "avowedly welcome" back gay and lesbian tourists. And they might start by turning to local gay and lesbian leaders for help in identifying how to go about it.

Update
Monday, May 29

On Monday, the PNJ officially acknowledges "It's Oh-So-Quiet At Beaches".

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