Experts see windfall from marriage ruling
by Matthew S. Bajko
The state Supreme Court's ruling in favor of gay marriage is not only a boon for same-sex couples. The decision is also seen as an economic windfall for government coffers, tourism destinations, and all manner of businesses catering to wedding needs, from formalwear designers and planners to jewelers and florists.
Just how significant is the court's historic ruling to the state's economy and tourism trade? Eleven minutes after the decision was posted to the court's Web site Thursday, May 15, the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau zapped reporters with a press release hailing the justices' 4-3 ruling.
The statement was one of, if not the, first to be sent out. In it, SFCVB President and CEO Joe D'Alessandro said the city is proud to welcome LGBT "couples to the first city in the United States to perform same-sex marriages and the only state in the U.S. where everyone has a constitutional right to marry."
And should anyone miss the point, the release quoted D'Alessandro as saying, "We encourage visitors to celebrate the freedom to marry in San Francisco â€“ where LGBT history continues to be made."
As the state grapples with a $17 billion budget deficit, it also came as no surprise to see Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger issue a statement â€“ also within minutes of the court's ruling being announced â€“ saying that he would uphold the court's decision. On average nationally, people spend about $25,000 on their weddings and a portion of that cost goes toward paying taxes to the state and local government coffers.
During a visit to San Francisco Tuesday, Schwarzenegger, in response to a question from gay photographer Bill Wilson, indicated he sees an economic upside to the weddings.
"You know, I'm wishing everyone good luck with their marriages and I hope that California's economy is booming because everyone is going to come here and get married," Schwarzenegger said.
A 2006 report from the Williams Institute, an LGBT think-tank affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, estimated that allowing gay couples to marry would be "a $2 billion boon for wedding-related industries in the United States." In California, the report estimated that the average cost of a wedding is $32,160. Should half of the state's same-sex couples wed, roughly 46,069 couples, and spend at least $8,040 on their ceremonies, the report estimated it would generate $370 million in new spending within the state.
An earlier study in 2005 by Williams Institute researchers M.V. Lee Badgett and R. Bradley Sears, titled "Putting A Price on Equality? The Impact of Same-Sex Marriage on California's Budget" and published in the Stanford Law and Policy Review journal, predicted that out of $1 billion spent annually on same-sex weddings, California stands to receive roughly 14 percent to 18 percent of that business.
The study estimated that the state budget stood to benefit from an annual net gain of approximately $123 million during the first three years that same-sex couples could marry in California, or approximately $41 million per year. Badgett and Sears were quick to add that their estimate was a conservative one, and that the real fiscal impact would likely be even larger.
"Our best estimate is that the benefit to the state will be significantly higher," concluded the two.
The scholars based their analysis on the estimate that approximately one half of the same-sex couples identified in California in the 2000 census would marry over the first three years gay marriage was legal, meaning 46,000 out of approximately 92,000 couples. Since then the 2006 census update pegged the number of same-sex couples in the state at 110,000.
"We estimate that same-sex weddings in California will generate an additional $84.5 million in business revenues and an additional $18.4 million in sales tax revenues," found the researchers.
Another advantage for the state that the two predicted would result from allowing gay marriage is a savings of more than $50 million each year that the state would no longer need to spend on health care costs, as many employers offer the same health benefits to gay couples that their married heterosexual employees receive.
As for the amount of out-of-state same-sex couples who would marry in California, the researchers determined that those couples would most likely live in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Washington, and Oregon.
According to the 2000 census, 85,409 same-sex unmarried partner couples lived in those states. Since those couples, or almost 170,818 individuals, have easy access to California, the researchers concluded they are most likely to choose it as a marriage destination.
However, they added that their "second somewhat less optimistic but more realistic scenario assumes that only half of the couples in these five states will travel to California and marry."
All told, the study determined that the net marriage tourism impact is likely to be $166.8 million to $567.3 million in business revenue and $12.1 to $41.1 million in new sales tax revenues.
Gary Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute, told the Bay Area Reporter during a phone interview this week that California stands to become the country's number one gay marriage destination because unlike Massachusetts, the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry, it does not have a residency requirement restricting who can marry.
"The impact of the California ruling is much more national in scope than the Massachusetts ruling. Anyone can come to California and get married," said Gates, who married his partner in Canada and does not plan to throw another wedding stateside. "In essence, what the California court did is open up marriage to anyone in the country."
In 2004 during the one-month period when same-sex couples could marry in San Francisco, those doing so came from 46 states and eight countries.
Gates also predicted that the numbers of gay and lesbian couples going to Canada, where gay marriage is also legal, would come to a near halt.
"I am sure all the Canadian migration marriages, those will diminish substantially," said Gates. "Psychologically for Americans the idea of being able to do it here is so much more powerful. There is going to be a pretty large pent-up demand."
Tourism officials in Vancouver, British Columbia, the largest Canadian city closest to California, also expressed concerns last week. But they sounded a more optimistic note on how impactful the marriage ruling would prove to be.
"Initially it may have some effect in the beginning as people in California decide to get married at home. But in the big picture, the gay community also looks at the political environment in destinations, which still gives us an advantage," Gayvan.com Travel Marketing President Angus Praught told the Vancouver Sun last week.
What is certain is that gay and lesbian couples should expect to find marriage-friendly destinations fighting to attract them to their locales. Travel sites are already getting in on the gay marriage bonanza, with the online hotel booking site http://www.VibeAgent.com posting a list of California's most romantic hotels in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Monica.
San Francisco tourism officials plan to do everything they can to ensure marrying gays and lesbians pick the city by the bay for their ceremonies. This week the SFCVB staff met to strategize on how to partner with various companies and LGBT groups as it rolls out is marriage-focused marketing campaign.
"San Francisco definitely has the opportunity to be the most successful on this because of our history, our continued efforts and the fact this is all based on the San Francisco case. We are going to make sure people don't forget that," said D'Alessandro in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon from the Los Angeles airport. "Pride is going to be just two weeks after the first marriage licenses will be released."
D'Alessandro plans to marry his partner sometime this summer. He said the court ruling is one more example of what makes San Francisco the number one gay-friendly destination in North America.
"This is one more item saying San Francisco cares about its people, and in San Francisco, all people are going to be treated equally and treated with respect," said D'Alessandro.
As for the free publicity the court's ruling has generated worldwide, he simply said, "We love it."
For couples planning to marry in San Francisco, they can call the visitors bureau at 800-637-5196 or visit its Web site at http://www.OnlyInSanFrancisco.com. A link from the site's home page will take visitors to the gay travel section.