Croatians approved a referendum to place a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which threatens to dent the Adriatic country’s biggest industry, tourism.
Citizens of the European Union’s newest member approved the initiative for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman with a vote of 64 percent to 34 percent, the election office said on its website today, citing 60 percent of votes counted. The first ever popular referendum in the predominantly Catholic country, where same-sex marriage isn’t legal, was called after more than 700,000 of the nation’s 4.2 million people signed a petition.
With a Mediterranean coastline of 5,835 kilometers (3,626 miles), tourism is the country’s lifeblood. The vote risks denting the $9.5 billion industry that accounts for a fifth of economic output by triggering a boycott from gay rights groups.
“Should the referendum pass, the entire gay media worldwide will pick on it, and this will lead to a call to boycott Croatia, not only by gays, but by their families and friends,” Paul Barnes, the head of communications at the Gay European Travel Association, said by phone before the vote.
Paris-based GETA, which promotes businesses involved in gay tourism, estimates gay tourists contribute about 50 billion euros ($68 billion) a year to the industry in Europe. The association currently recommends more than 50 hotels in Croatia for gay travelers, Barnes said.
Tourist arrivals rose 9.7 percent last month from a year earlier in Croatia, which is experiencing its fifth consecutive year without economic growth with unemployment at 20.3 percent.
The cost to insure the country’s debt against non-payment for five years using credit-default swaps was 370 basis points on Nov. 29, higher than for any EU member except Greece, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The yield on the government’s dollar bonds maturing in 2024 was 6.32 percent, 0.08 percentage point higher than on Nov. 22, when it debuted.
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and other members of the Social-Democrat-led government said before the referendum they would vote against the proposed amendment. President Ivo Josipovic did as well, and he called on citizens “to think about the consequences” when they voted.
“It’s not good for Croatia to establish itself as a country of intolerance,” he told reporters yesterday in Zagreb.
Zeljka Markic, whose group In the Name of the Family started the movement to call the referendum, said their aim is to protect children and families.
“All people of good will are welcome here, but if gay organizations decide to boycott Croatian tourism because of the referendum, they will find out they can vacation in very few places,” she said in an interview on Nov. 26.
Ten European countries have legalized gay marriage, including Spain and Portugal, while 14 others have some form of recognition for same-sex unions. In Croatia, gay couples can register their unions and enjoy some of the rights that unmarried heterosexual partnerships have.
The referendum would be an important signal for gay people that they aren’t welcome, GETA’s Barnes said.
“While many countries have not legalized gay marriage, Croatia here seems to go out of its way to be negative to gay people,” he said by phone. “Even though a proposed change to the constitution doesn’t take away any existing gay rights, it will be seen as a negative moment, and a setback like this can act as a catalyst that mobilizes the gay community.”
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