Bernie Bennett loves to travel, and has visited Maine many times, but the 78-year-old Tucson retiree says he won’t be returning to the Pine Tree State anytime soon.

This savvy, six-continent world traveler wants to send a message to Gov. Paul LePage. Despite lovely memories of childhood summers spent at Old Orchard Beach, and more recent visits to Eastport, Lubec and Campobello, Bennett said he will not be spending any of his substantial yearly travel budget in a state that is led by someone who refers to minorities as “the enemy” and tries to blame the state’s drug problems on them.

“Our pledge to Maine: We will absolutely not visit while the racist Neanderthal LePage is your governor,” Bennett said. “I don’t know how much more clear I can make it.”

Bennett’s individual boycott wouldn’t bankrupt Maine’s $5.6 billion tourism industry. Based on their rental car, lodging, shopping and dining habits, Bennett and his wife would have only spent about $3,500 during their week-long stay, plus whatever his wife, Carole, purchased during their mandatory shopping trip to L.L. Bean in Freeport. They are just two of the 33 million tourists who visit Maine in a typical year.

Travel industry officials and advisers said it is too early to know if the Bennetts and the handful of others canceling travel plans to Maine because of LePage are outliers or the tip of an approaching iceberg.

The governor’s behavior, the national attention it has generated and its possible threat to the state’s wholesome image was the topic of discussion among attendees at a national tourism conference in Florida this week as an example of real-time crisis management. According to Lauren Duffy, an assistant professor at Clemson University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, travel boycotts like the ones being studied at the U.S. Travel Association’s conference have become another way for people to challenge politics they find offensive, especially ones that challenge the freedoms and rights of groups of people.

“Tourism and politics are very entangled,” said Duffy, whose research focuses on tourism development. “Certain political events can have significant impact on tourism. LePage is doing no favors to his state’s tourism industry.”

TRAVELERS SEND EMAILS, CANCEL TRIPS

Lynn Tillotson, executive director of the Greater Portland Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Chris Fogg, chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association, received emails over the weekend from tourists canceling trips or saying they won’t return. Tillotson got disapproving emails from motor coach groups, too. She said most of those who wrote had no issue with Maine as a place or a people, which suggests even these travelers will eventually return if made to feel welcome again.

“I think what our visitors understand is Maine is a wonderful destination where they can come and enjoy incredible scenery, great outdoor activities and world-class dining,” said Fogg. “And most of all, they enjoy the welcoming nature of the people of our state. … Most have said great things about our state and the people who live here, but wanted to register their concerns.”

As of Tuesday, the state had not lost any major concerts or conventions, although its convention business is small, catering mostly to in-state groups. Most of Maine’s tourism dollars are spent by individual travelers who book hotel rooms or vacation homes, state statistics show.

Perhaps most worrisome to Maine tourist groups, the places that supply most of those individual travelers – Massachusetts, Canada and New York – tend to trend liberal, and would likely take more offense to racially charged comments made by a Republican politician.

Tillotson is carefully responding to those who took the time to write, telling them the people of Maine are warm and welcoming.

“We want to focus on the positive,” Tillotson said. “We don’t want to risk making the problem any worse than it already is by drawing more attention to it.”

POLITICAL TURMOIL HURT OTHER STATES

A tourist official walks a fine line when facing vacationer backlash, especially at the beginning, when they are still trying to determine if LePage’s recent comments will be quickly forgotten amid the hubbub of an election year, or if they are about to blow up into a full-fledged reputation crisis like the ones that have cost Indiana and North Carolina millions in lost tourist revenue, said Richard Tauberman, a public relations veteran at MWW Group in Washington D.C., who specializes in crisis communications in the tourist industry. He spoke on the issue at the tourism conference this week in Boca Raton.

The economic impact of a state law that banned protections for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people in North Carolina was felt within a month of signing, with Raleigh tourism officials projecting an immediate $3 million loss, and Charlotte tourism officials – the city eventually lost the 2017 NBA All-Star Game – projecting an $86 million loss through 2020. In January, Indianapolis tourist officials claimed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 2015, which critics said would be used to deny services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, would cost them $60 million.

Charlotte was put in the politically uncomfortable position of distancing itself from the state power brokers, especially its governor, who supported the law, by launching an “Always Welcome” campaign to promote its inclusiveness, which didn’t win the city any friends in the capital, Tauberman said. In Maine, should LePage’s comments spark an all-out boycott like those in Indiana or North Carolina, it would likely end up being tourism agencies such as Tillotson’s, which are not bankrolled by the state, that could afford to distance themselves from a sitting governor, he said.

WARY OF LEPAGE, SOME DECLINE TO TALK

A handful of hotel managers and local tourist boards contacted for this story said they didn’t want to talk about LePage’s behavior, or what their guests thought about it, out of fear it would land them on the governor’s “enemy list.” One noted LePage’s obscenity-laced phone message to Democratic state Rep. Drew Gattine, in which LePage said “I’m after you,” and comments to reporters saying he wished he could have a duel with Gattine and point a gun “right between his eyes.” That is not a man you want to tick off, the hotelier said.

The state Office of Tourism did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for its parent agency, the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, wouldn’t say if the state was aware of a tourist backlash against LePage or canceled reservations. But the agency’s director of legislative affairs and communications, Doug Ray, said visits to Maine have been increasing every year since 2011, when LePage was first elected, and that “we don’t expect that trend to reverse itself anytime soon.”

“Maine is open for business and tourism is big business here in our great state,” Ray said. “We will continue to market Maine as a terrific place to visit, study and invest.”