ALBANY — Upstate New York tourism could benefit if the millions of visitors who flock to the region annually are convinced there is no room in the inn for racism or racial profiling, advocates for the hospitality industry suggest.
And while hiring workers who understand the importance of respecting all guests, regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, can only help the industry, a single racially charged incident can create a lingering perception problem for the region where it happens, they say.
As the 2018 tourism season approaches, the Adirondack Council, a nonprofit group that typically advocates for environmental causes, is suggesting that state government become involved in providing sensitivity training to front-line tourism-sector workers and state employees and contractors in the Adirondack Park.
The North Country, where many small towns have populations with relatively few African-American, Hispanic or Asian residents, has endured a series of racially tense encounters.
Ticonderoga drew attention two years ago when black summer-camp workers were told to leave a department store after another customer hurled racial insults at them.
Later that year, Aaron Mair, an African-American from the Albany area who was then president of the Sierra Club, was taunted with racist insults by rafters near a Warrensburg-area river during a photo shoot for Adirondack Life magazine.
Last month, the Starbucks coffee-shop chain became embroiled in controversy after two black men who had asked to use the bathroom at one of its stores in Philadelphia were arrested after an assistant manager called the police on them.
After the incident made national headlines, the Starbucks CEO said the men should never have been arrested and called the situation “reprehensible.”
Starbucks is now providing workers throughout the chain with sensitivity training.
MORE DIVERSE TRAVELERS
The Adirondack Council says the state should move to provide hospitality workers here with workshops aimed at fostering better race relations in order to make the upstate region “a more welcoming place,” said John Sheehan, the council’s spokesman.
“All of us have biases we don’t even know about or are unconscious of,” he noted.
He and other advocates say such training would be good for business across upstate New York at a time when tourists are becoming increasingly diverse.
More than 40 percent of Americans from the millennial generation — defined as those born between 1981 and 1996 — come from racial backgrounds other than Caucasian.
SIGNS OF WELCOME
In Cooperstown, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and one of the upstate region’s top tourism destinations, some residents and shop owners are already spreading the word that their village has the red carpet out for people from all backgrounds.
Signs began popping up last year, stating, “Cooperstown Welcomes People From All Faiths, All Nations.”
Cassandra Harrington, director of Otsego County’s Destination Marketing Corp., said she believes state-provided diversity training would be welcomed by many businesses catering to travelers.
Local businesses have already demonstrated the importance of appealing to diverse groups, she said, and employers such as the Otesaga Resort Hotel and Fly Creek Cider Mill rely on foreign nationals who fill seasonal jobs after qualifying for special employment visa programs.
Preventing a Starbucks-type incident should be the goal of all business operators, said Bill Michaels, vice president and co-owner of Fly Creek Cider Mill.
But he suggested the responsibility to ensure staff have adequate diversity training falls with the owners, not the government.
“I don’t know if it is as much of a hospitality issue as it is a business issue,” he added.
At a time when New York is locked in fierce competition with surrounding states and Canada for tourism dollars, it would behoove state government to make an investment that lessens the chances that visitors will have an upsetting experience during their stay, said Bill Bradberry, president and chairman of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission.
Bradberry, former president of the Niagara Falls NAACP, noted his region gets an estimated 30 million visitors yearly.
The commission recently opened a new museum to educate the public about the region’s connection to providing shelter and passage to those escaping slavery.
“It’s important that we go out of our way to make sure that everyone is welcome and we make sure we train our front-line point-of-contact people with the importance of being sensitive” to people from diverse backgrounds, Bradberry said.
Some tourism agencies at the local level already provide diversity training, officials noted.
The push for more training has gained traction at the statehouse, with Sen. Brian Benjamin (D-Harlem) crafting a bill that would mandate that bi-annual seminars in “anti-bias and inclusion” be completed by public employees.
“Having a properly trained and culturally sensitive workforce in the tourism industry is a necessary condition for economic development in New York State,” the legislation states.
Ross Levi, the state’s director of tourism, overseeing the I Love NY promotion campaign, said the state’s promotional materials include robust efforts to draw members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities — groups that collectively account for an estimated $1 billion in spending annually.
“New York state is always looking for opportunities to make sure that all travelers know that a warm welcome awaits them in the Empire State,” Levi said.
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