NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Thousands of visitors roll into New Orleans this week for Southern Decadence: five days of celebration of gay culture in a city now being promoted by tourism officials as a honeymoon site for same-sex newlyweds — despite the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage.
"It just shows the dichotomy between what business knows in the state and what our political leaders think," said gay rights activist John Hill. "Obviously, the business community in New Orleans knows that the gay travel market, the honeymoon destination, is a big market."
Southern Decadence runs through the Labor Day weekend and helps fill hotel rooms — an estimated 37,000 in New Orleans and its suburbs — at a typically slow time in the tourist season. This year's festival follows the Supreme Court's overturning of key parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and coincides with a social media campaign by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau targeting 13 states where same-sex marriage is legal.
"Gay and lesbian couples want to do what everyone else wants to do, which is listen to great music, go to bars and night clubs, get some of the best food in the world and enjoy our culture," bureau spokeswoman Kelly Schulz said.
To let them know they are welcome, the bureau has launched a social media campaign.
"We are focusing on Facebook now because it is more targeted and cost-effective compared to magazines or TV," Schulz said. The campaign includes a contest, launching Sunday, giving away a trip for two to New Orleans. The only cost to the bureau is a one-month pay-per-click Facebook ad campaign for which it has budgeted $500, plus airfare for the winning couple to travel to New Orleans, bureau communications manager Rob Wilbanks said. Bureau members are donating the hotel stay, dinners and attraction tickets.
Meanwhile, the separate New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. is making pitches to gay couples as a honeymoon destination during the gay Halloween celebration in October. Jeff Hinson, with the NOTMC ad agency Dentsu America, estimates the marketing campaign at about $200,000 for an all-digital media effort, including social media pages and sponsored content on websites such as dot429 and OUT Traveler, a site that includes gay honeymoon content from New Orleans and other cities.
It's unclear whether there will be many — or any — honeymooners among visitors for Southern Decadence, a loosely organized conglomeration of street parties and music and entertainment events catering largely to gay men and centered in the French Quarter.
Sponsors and promoters of Southern Decadence events say the celebration evolved from a neighborhood going-away party in 1972. Attendance estimates for this year's festival range as high as 125,000. Promoters say it will have an economic impact of as much as $100 million on the city.
The promotion of the event by mainstream tourism organizations comes even as political, legal and social challenges for New Orleans' gay community linger.