NYC Tourism Closes Office in Russia over Threat to Gays

George Fertitta, CEO of NYC and Company. | NYC.GOV

George Fertitta, CEO of NYC & Company. | NYC.GOV

NYC & Company, the quasi-governmental agency that promotes tourism to the city from all over the world, is closing its office in Moscow in large part due to the anti-gay laws in Russia that have sparked violence against LGBT people and those perceived to be gay.

Chris Heywood, senior vice-president for communications for NYC & Company, told Gay City News that the anti-gay laws and rising anti-gay violence “prevented us from sending our tourism sales staff into the [Russian] market. We do have LGBT staff.”

He added that other factors were at play in the decision as well.

The announcement of the closing of the Moscow office for NYC & Company, one of 18 around the world, was made by the group’s CEO, George Fertitta, at a Crain’s New York Business forum on tourism on September 25 at John Jay College. According to a source who was present, Fertitta explained that the main reason he was taking the action was because of the anti-gay laws, but the story was not picked up or announced in a press release.

Heywood set up a phone interview for Gay City News with Fertitta for October 7, but later e-mailed that Fertitta had to cancel because of a meeting he had at City Hall. “His schedule is not good for the rest of the week either,” Heywood wrote.

Heywood explained there were multiple reasons why NYC & Company was closing its Russian office, which he said was not a “bricks and mortar” location but a relationship with AVIAREPS, an international tourism representation firm with an office in Moscow. He said the relationship would end on January 1.

State Senator Brad Hoylman, a gay Democrat from the West Side, said of the closing of the Russian outlet, “I think that’s a prudent move by NYC & Company given the hostile climate.” He has joined Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, another gay West Side Democrat, in urging State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to divest New York’s Common Retirement Fund of its assets in companies incorporated in the Russian Federation to protest the country’s new anti-gay laws that essentially make it a crime against children to be open about being gay. Russia has also banned adoption by those from countries that recognize same-sex marriages and is moving on legislation to take children away from Russian parents who are gay or lesbian.

While Hoylman said New York State’s tourism office should “follow suit” and also sever relationships with Russia, a query to the state tourism bureau was answered by an email from Empire State Development, which includes tourism in its responsibilities, saying, “ESD has no trade representation in Russia.” In a follow up, the agency confirmed it had no tourism presence either.

While the city is the primary funder of NYC & Company, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office did not return a call for comment on the agency closing its Russian office.

Queer Nation has been leading a grassroots campaign in New York to protest the Russian anti-gay laws through direct action against everyone from the Metropolitan Opera, which kicked off its season with Putin-loving artists, to bars serving Stolichnaya Vodka to Coca Cola, one of the big sponsors of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in February. The group’s Alexis Danzig said in an emailed statement that NYC & Company “has confirmed what the US State Department has warned all Americans and what the Russian LGBT community has been saying for months. It's unsafe to be gay in Russia. LGBT people and their allies will not be safe during the Olympics, and LGBT Russians will not be safe after the Olympics are gone.”

The US State Department did indeed just issue an advisory for Americans traveling to Russia citing the dangers posed by the anti-gay laws and atmosphere. It reads in part, “Violence against the LGBT community has increased sharply since the law was passed, including entrapment and torture of young gay men by neo-Nazi gangs and the murder of multiple individuals due to their sexual orientation. Many view this legislation as encouraging such violence, with the majority of attacks against members of the LGBT community going unreported.”

Heywood emphasized that NYC & Company’s other main reason for closing its Russian office was due to “market conditions” there and its focus on a plan to pursue more Latin American tourists, particularly from Colombia and Peru. He said, “We’re not sending a message that we don’t want Russian tourists, but we don’t feel it’s the best decision to keep sales efforts in that market at this time. While what’s going on in terms of the anti-gay violence in Russia is of concern, we don’t make decisions solely based on political views or decisions; we make it based on market decisions. It was also somewhat of a safety concern.”