Bermuda same-sex marriage ban means trouble for tourism and cruise ships

Key Points
  • Bermuda passed a law on Wednesday that bans same-sex marriage and cruise ships registered in Bermuda from hosting them.
  • The government passed a domestic partnership act that it says protects the rights of same-sex couples. Activists say the ban makes for "watered down" rights.
  • Many believe it will hurt Bermuda's $431 million in annual tourism.
  • Bacardi, the largest privately held spirits company in the world, is based in Bermuda.
LGBT advocates in front of the U.S. Supreme Court
Joshua Roberts | Reuters

Ryan Bennington and his husband have changed their anniversary plans. Bennington has been to Bermuda more than 30 times and even celebrated his 30th birthday there. He always found the people warm and welcoming.

That was before Bermuda Governor John Rankin signed into law the Domestic Partnership Act, which bans same-sex marriage throughout the territory. The law, enacted Wednesday, comes less than a year after the island's Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in May. Bermuda is now the first jurisdiction to overturn the legalization of same-sex marriage.

"It's unfortunate, but I make my voice heard through my wallet whether at home or in my travels," Bennington explained in an email.

The decision has put Bermuda tourism and some major cruise lines in a difficult spot. Carnival subsidiaries Cunard and P&O Cruises are both registered in Bermuda. Regardless of where the ships are in the world, they will no longer be allowed to host same-sex marriages. Princess Cruises, also part of Carnival, has ships registered in Bermuda as well. In August, the three Carnival cruise lines said they had started taking bookings for same-sex marriages at sea.

Bermuda hosted 693,000 tourists in 2017, and these visitors spent $431 million. The same-sex marriage ban will force many couples to rethink their travel plans. Bermuda's cruise ship economy grew last year. Bermuda received 161 cruise ship calls, bringing 416,049 passengers, an increase of 4.6 percent, and the government was forecasting more growth this year based on the 2017 numbers.

"Bermuda will have a backlash," Justin Nelson, the president and co-founder of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an email. "Countries and travels brands know that LGBT inclusive tourism is big business — and Bermuda is going to suffer painful economic losses because of its decision to turn back the clock on same-sex marriages."

Bermuda will have a backlash. ...  Bermuda is going to suffer painful economic losses because of its decision to turn back the clock on same-sex marriages.
Justin Nelson
National LGBT Chamber of Commerce

Nelson says more than 80 percent of the American LGBT population has passports, compared to about 40 percent for the rest of the population. He estimates the economic impact of LGBT travel worldwide at more than $100 billion. "Our communities make conscientious decisions based upon who has demonstrated policies that have our backs," Nelson wrote.

The cruise lines are not the only companies caught in the middle of the issue.

Bacardi, the largest privately held spirits company in the world, is based in Bermuda. "We have long called Bermuda home and have the highest regard for its people and respect for the democratic process," it said in a statement issued to CNBC on Feb. 13. "As a global business, however, we pride ourselves on being inclusive and support policies of equality. At Bacardi, we believe our purpose is to bring all people together in celebration."

The Bermuda Tourism Authority wrote a letter to the Senate in December urging the lawmakers not to pass the repeal. "Same-sex marriage is already the law of our island and to roll that back for what will be seen as a less equal union will cause us serious reputational damage," the letter reads. "It's not only LGBT travelers that care about equal rights based on sexual orientation. Our research indicates many companies, consumers and travelers, including the overwhelming majority of the younger visitors powering Bermuda's growth, care about this issue."

It estimated that the LGBT community spends $165 billion worldwide.

GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement to CNBC, "The repeal of marriage equality in Bermuda is a denigrating and unnecessary strike against loving and committed LGBTQ couples in Bermuda as well as others around the world who would consider vacationing there. ... It is now imperative for international businesses that play major roles in Bermuda's economy, such as cruise lines and the travel industry, to make their voices heard."

GLAAD said several cruise lines that bring tourists to Bermuda not only contribute largely to Bermuda's tourism industry and economy, but they have long histories of standing with and marketing to LGBTQ people.

"These brands and their business leaders should demonstrate true leadership and stand for those customers they've courted by helping to combat this harmful decision," Ellis stated.

Cunard's Queen Mary 2 is among the ships registered in Bermuda.
Source: James D. Morgan | Cunard Line

Bermuda's legislature passed the Domestic Partnership Act in December before Rankin signed it into law on Wednesday. The Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage upset many voters on the conservative island.

"The act is intended to strike a fair balance between two currently irreconcilable groups in Bermuda, by restating that marriage must be between a male and a female while at the same time recognizing and protecting the rights of same-sex couples," Walton Brown, Bermuda's minister of home affairs, told the press earlier this week.

The government claims that same-sex couples will have similar rights and protections as heterosexual couples. Same-sex couples have the right to a partner's pension and property, as well as the right to make medical decisions for a partner. Eight same-sex marriages occurred during the brief time it was legal in Bermuda. Those marriages remain recognized.

But same-sex advocates argue this is still a major step backwards. "This legislation creates a 'watered down' version of rights, leading to a separate-but-equal status under the law," The Rainbow Alliance of Bermuda posted on Facebook. "No separate-but-equal measure allows for equality or justice."

P&O Cruises and Cunard must now grapple with how to appeal to same-sex couples who can no longer get married on their ships.

A statement from the cruise lines, which are both owned by parent company Carnival, read: "Having been delighted and wholly supportive of the Bermuda Government's change in law last May, which allowed us to conduct same sex marriages on board our ships, we are disappointed with this outcome. We will now be working closely with the Bermudan authorities to understand the legalities of 'Domestic Partnership Act 2017' and whether this is something we can offer our guests in the future."

As long as Bermuda's same-sex marriage ban remains, Bennington and his husband — and likely many other couples like them — said they will travel elsewhere.

Updated to include statement from Bacardi, which is based in Bermuda, provided to CNBC on Feb. 13.

WATCH: Sessions' religious objection order undercuts LGBT protections

Jeff Sessions' religious objection order undercuts LGBT protections
Jeff Sessions' religious objection order undercuts LGBT protections