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Can a travel boycott force Florida to toughen gun control laws?

Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via Associated Press

Student David Hogg speaks to the media as he returns to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Wednesday.

By Globe Staff 

As classes resume at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., this week after a shooting there left 17 dead, travel experts are carefully watching for a potential dip in the state’s tourism industry.

David Hogg, a 17-year-old survivor of the shooting, is calling on college students across the country to boycott Florida as a spring break destination in an attempt to force the hand of legislators to enact tougher gun control laws.

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“Let’s make a deal DO NOT come to Florida for spring break unless gun legislation is passed. These politions (sic) won’t listen to us so maybe the’ll (sic) listen to the billion dollar tourism industry in FL,” Hogg posted to his Twitter account, which now has nearly 400,000 followers. The tweet has so far garnered 170,000 likes.

He later followed the tweet with another suggesting that spring breakers spend their dollars in Puerto Rico instead.

A boycott could have serious consequences to Florida’s tourism-dependent economy. More than 2 million college students travel to the state for spring break every year, each spending an average of $1,200, according to a University of Central Florida study. Over one spring break travel season, 540,000 college students contributed $170 million to the economy of popular spring break destination of Panama City, the same study found.

The travel app Hopper found that three of the most popular domestic spring break locations are in Florida: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando.

If a boycott spreads beyond spring break, it could be disastrous for a state where tourism is the largest industry, providing 1.4 million jobs. According to the state’s tourism bureau, visitors spent $108 billion in 2016. In a statement, a representative from Visit Florida said it will continue to market the state as “A welcoming and safe world-class destination.”

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Hogg, a student journalist, called for the boycott after the Florida Senate Appropriations Committee voted down amendments to ban assault weapons, bump stocks, and high-capacity magazines, in addition to passing on creating a firearms registry and requiring that private sales of firearms be done through a licensed dealer.

So far, travel-related companies such as Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Hertz, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, National Alamo, Wyndham, and Best Western have eliminated discounts for members of the National Rifle Association as a result of the organization’s assault rifle advocacy.

“We’ve seen states pass legislation or discuss legislation that certain groups in America found outside of what they wanted,” said Boston University professor and political media consultant Tobe Berkovitz. “Whether it’s bathroom bills or gun control, people react to decisions made in states. Travelers are not willing to put up with what they see as policies they don’t agree with.” `

North Carolina faced a crippling backlash when it passed a “bathroom bill” in 2016 that required transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in many public buildings.

The state lost hundreds of millions of dollars after a year of tumult that saw businesses leave and major sporting events and concerts canceled. The bill was rescinded a year after its passage.

Despite the passion surrounding gun control, Hogg’s call for a Florida spring break boycott faces several obstacles. Spring break for many colleges has already begun, and most students have made plans and paid for plane fare and hotel rooms.

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“I did have plans to go to Florida for spring break, but they never developed into much,” said Evan Gilbert-Katz, a 21-year-old advertising major at Boston University. “Whether or not I would have canceled them would have depended on my airline and hotel providing me with a refund. As much as I favor stricter gun laws, I wouldn’t want my money to go to waste.”

Other students echoed the economics of losing money and changing plans.

“Although I have very strong opinions on gun control, I don’t think many people would take it into consideration for their upcoming travel plans, especially on such short notice,” said Lasell College senior Leanne Signoriello.

Another factor potentially railroading a Florida tourism boycott is that unlike North Carolina’s bathroom bill, which was state-specific, discussions over tougher gun laws are happening across the country.

“A lot of people can relate to this, to some extent,” said Dan Peltier, tourism reporter for the travel trade website Skift. “After the shooting in Las Vegas, no one was calling for a boycott. That didn’t get the conversation going. It was the same after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. In some ways we’ve unfortunately become numb to these incidents.”

But many of those who liked and responded to Hogg’s boycott tweet are not college students and said they still plan to boycott Florida vacations.

“We were thinking of a school vacation in Florida this spring,” said Linda Lewis, a mother of two who lives in Boston. “But there are plenty of other places that are warm, and I’d rather spend my money there.”


Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther