Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser believes transgender restrictions currently under consideration by the Louisiana Legislature will hurt the state’s tourism industry if they become law.
“They will have a negative impact,” said Nungesser, a Republican, when asked about the proposed transgender restrictions in a Thursday interview. “It would be better for us to open our doors very wide.”
Nungesser, as lieutenant governor, oversees Louisiana’s marketing and tourism efforts and has made similar comments in the past about LGBTQ restrictions. He’s also a statewide elected Republican who’s been active in Louisiana GOP politics for decades. He is expected to run for governor in 2023.
Nungesser’s criticism focused on the legislation’s impact on the economy. He said he couldn’t comment on the ethical implications of the bills — whether they amount to discrimination — because he hadn’t read through the bills personally.
But as the person who is in charge of attracting visitors to the state, he said he is confident transgender restrictions would cause problems for the tourism and hospitality industry just as it is trying to get back on its feet.
Tourism — which drives the entire state’s economy — ground to a halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic and has just started to see some signs of rebounding.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday that Louisiana lost an estimated $1 billion worth of economic impact after Mardi Gras was largely canceled this year. That’s after foregoing $750 million of economic impact due to canceled festivals, sporting events and conventions in May and June of 2020 alone.
“We need everyone to come to Louisiana that’s going to want to come here,” Nungesser said. “My job is to open our doors for everybody.”
Edwards is so concerned about Louisiana’s tourism industry that he wants to allocate a considerable portion of the federal funding for COVID-19 relief that’s been sent to the state for tourism efforts.
The governor’s proposing the state give $125 million of the COVID-10 relief funds to local visitor and convention bureaus. He also wants to allocate $20 million to Nungesser’s office for an “aggressive” state tourism marketing campaign.
“This is incredibly important to jump starting our economy and getting more customers into our businesses,” Edwards said Thursday.
Tourism officials believe that the post-pandemic era will be the “most competitive tourism and travel market in history,” said Jill Kidder, head of the Louisiana Travel Association.
“Every other destination in the Southeast, the country, and also the world, will be vying for our visitors and our convention attendees,” she said at a press conference held by the governor Thursday.
In that economic climate, Nungesser wishes that Louisiana lawmakers would put off controversial bills for a few years, at least until after Louisiana’s tourism market has stabilized. On the top of the transgender restrictions, Nungesser said bills to rapidly expand gun rights that are gaining traction in the Legislature might also deter visitors from Louisiana.
“This is not the year to fight over any of those controversial issues,” he said. “We need to do everything we can to put politics aside. We can do battle on political fronts later.”
Nungesser added that Louisiana has been benefiting from Georgia’s decision to enact new restrictions on voting. A film starring Will Smith moved from Georgia to Louisiana in protest of Georgia’s new voting laws. Nungesser’s office is helping that production find locations for filming, he said.
Louisiana’s economy depends, in part, on attracting large business conferences and sports events to New Orleans. Those large events — including industry meetings and annual conventions — help keep the city’s restaurants, hotels and event spaces open.
But business groups, associations and sports leagues have shown a willingness to boycott and relocate their conferences and events over policies they think are discriminatory. This includes laws that target the LGBTQ community for restrictions.
Local New Orleans tourism leaders are particularly concerned that transgender restrictions would affect the city’s ability to keep the 2025 Super Bowl, 2021 Final Four men’s college basketball tournament and the annual Allstate Sugar Bowl. The NCAA has already said that it might be willing to pull events from states that aren’t perceived to be welcoming and inclusive.
Louisiana lawmakers filed four bills that would impose restrictions on the transgender community this year. One of piece of legislation — a bill that would restrict health care access for transgender teens and children — has already been shelved, but the three other bills are still under consideration. Legislation that would restrict transgender people’s participation in sports competitions seems most likely to pass.
Edwards has said he will veto any of the transgender restriction bills the Legislature approves, but the proposals could still damage the reputation of the state even if he blocks them from becoming law, said New Orleans tourism officials. Having transgender restrictions come close to becoming law could still scare away conventions and sporting events, they said.