Gay marriage 'tourism': How big an economic boom for states?

The summer's Supreme Court decisions unleashed pent-up demand for gay marriages, and a handful of states reaped an economic benefit. The effect is not huge, but neither is it insignificant.

Stacy Bengs/AP/File
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (c.) officiates at the wedding of Al Giraud (r.) and his partner Jeff Isaacson at the Minneapolis City Hall on Aug. 1. They were the first gay couple legally married in Minnesota. Mayor Rybak hit the road earlier this month to promote his 'Marry in Minneapolis' campaign.

When Minnesota enacted a same-sex marriage law this summer, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak saw an economic opportunity.

Earlier this month, he flew to Illinois – where legislators had recently failed to pass a same-sex marriage bill – to launch “Marry Me In Minneapolis.” Mayor Rybak invited same-sex couples from Chicago to wed (and spend a few dollars) in his city.

The ad campaign might not promise sweeping changes for the city's finances, but it could help. Demand for same-sex marriage ceremonies has grown since the United States Supreme Court in June struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, according to experts and businesses.

Now, some states and cities are moving in to take advantage.

“You’re going to see an exponential increase [in same-sex marriages] as people understand” the impact of the DOMA decision, says Charlie Rounds, managing partner of Brand g Vacations, a Minneapolis gay tour operator.

Currently, the District of Columbia and 13 states permit same sex marriages, and with few other states likely to shift position in the immediate future, the gay-marriage map appears set for the moment. That clarifies the options for gay couples wanting to marry.

California and New York are huge draws for gay weddings, says LoAnn Halden, spokeswoman for the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association. For California, that is the direct result of a second Supreme Court decision in June, which struck down Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that banned gay marriage.

During the next three years, gay weddings in California will generate $492 million, according to an analysis by the Williams Institute, a think tank on gay issues at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.

Even tiny Vermont stands to benefit. It’s seen as a leader in marriage equality, which helps explain why a couple from Minnesota preferred to wed there in late July rather than wait a week for the Minnesota law to take effect, says Willie Docto, co-owner of Moose Meadow Lodge in Duxbury, Vt.

Mr. Docto and his partner, Greg Trulson, typically host 20 to 24 weddings a year for same sex couples at their bed and breakfast. But the Supreme Court's historic DOMA decision on June 26 changed that.

“The first 11 days of July we hosted 11 weddings. [DOMA] just opened up the floodgates,” says Docto.

Records from the Vermont Department of Health show that between 2010 and Aug. 31, 2012, 2,375 same sex wedding licenses were issued. Two-thirds of licensees came from out of state.

Some of these wedding travel dollars will go offshore. A number of foreign countries are touting themselves as gay wedding destinations, and Cruise Planners American Express Travel Inc. just announced a “Sea of Love” cruise from Florida to the US Virgin Islands where couples – both same sex and heterosexual – can participate in a mass commitment ceremony.

“We have seen an impressive increase in demand from same-sex couples looking to declare their love for one another, so we decided to kick it up a notch by doing this once-in-a-lifetime event,” says Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners. “This is … a turning point in history.”

Be it Vermont or the high seas, gay wedding providers may have to contend with smaller individual paydays. The average gay wedding costs $9,039, compared with $21,404 for a heterosexual couple, according to a 2012 study conducted for NYC & Co., the tourism arm of New York City. Gay couples weren’t tighter with money; they just typically invited fewer guests.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rounds, the Minneapolis tour operator, urged those wanting to tie the knot to, ahem, not forget Minnesota or Iowa, the only other Midwest state to allow gay marriage.

“Not everybody can afford to fly to New York or Boston,” he says.

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