Arizona hoteliers' dilemma

By Jeri Clausing

Jeri ClausingArizona, a state whose hotel industry was among the hardest hit by the recession, faces a new and potentially devastating long-term hit just as business and group travel are picking up around the country.

The latest threat to this border state's lodging industry is the recent enactment of an immigration law that gives authorities power to demand proof of a person's residency status when they are lawfully stopped for any reason.

While a recent poll showed a majority of Americans support the law, many cities, states and groups have joined travel boycotts of the state, which has resulted in a rash of cancellations of meetings and conventions.

As of last week, some $10 million to $12 million in meetings business had been canceled because of the law, and an untold number of new bookings were lost, according to hotel and tourism officials.

Among the latest cancellations was the National Minority Supplier Development Council, which would have brought 7,000 people to a conference in Phoenix.

Given widespread concerns that the new law will result in racial profiling, I find it hard to blame groups for canceling meetings there, particularly if their expected attendees are minorities.

At the same time, it's hard to ignore the arguments from groups like the American Hotel & Lodging Association that the people hurt most by such boycotts are not the politicians who passed the laws but the 200,000 people who work in the tourism industry, 30% of whom are Hispanic.

Missing from the press releases and talking points from the AHLA and the Arizona Hotel & Lodging Association, however, is any indication that the hoteliers have taken a political stand against the law that is causing them so much trouble. There are no reports of their wielding their clout as local business owners and constituents of the lawmakers who passed the legislation to seek changes in the legislation.

That seems strange, since the hotel industry, like most business sectors, is politically active on other issues that have an impact on their bottom line. And as an industry that relies heavily on immigrant workers, it has long been active with regard to federal immigration and visa laws.

A spokeswoman for the Arizona Hotel & Lodging Association said the industry was caught off guard by the Arizona law, which she said was never considered a tourism issue when it was winding its way through the State Capitol. And despite the outcry that has triggered a backlash against tourism and hotels, owners are far from united in supporting or opposing the law.

"It took us awhile to get a grasp of how people feel about it," said Kristen Jarnagin, the association's vice president of communications. "As an industry, we decided we were not supporting or denouncing the bill, because it is not a tourism issue. It only became a tourism issue when one of our congressmen asked for a boycott of conventions and meetings."

Right now, she said, the tourism industry is focused on stopping the boycotts and reversing the negative perceptions about Arizona.

"Our real purpose is to try to be the voice of those 200,000 people who rely on tourism for their paycheck," she said.

Among the latest cities to join the boycott are Seattle and Boston, which she said have called it a "symbolic effort to stand up for the people who might be impacted."

"But it is not symbolic to the employees who are taking home less and possibly losing health care," Jarnagin said. "Regardless of how you feel about the bill, please don't support boycotts, as they really do hurt innocent workers."

Fair enough. But if the boycott continues to hinder the fragile tourism industry's recovery, leaders are going to have to take a public political position to protect themselves and their workers -- or suffer the consequences silently.

Email Jeri Clausing at jclausing@travelweekly.com.

This column appeared in the June 7 issue of Travel Weekly.

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