Teetering on the south rim of the Grand Canyon was probably less dangerous last week than being an Arizona tourism official caught in the line of fire as public opinion, pro and con, heated up over the state’s tough new immigration law.
The threats to the state’s recession-battered tourism industry, still struggling from recession fallout and the swine flu crisis of 2009, ranged from calls for a nationwide boycott to an advisory issued by the Mexican government, which warned its citizens that because of the "adverse political environment" in Arizona, Mexican visitors, including migrant communities, should be cautious when visiting the state or avoid it altogether.
State tourism executives found themselves in the awkward position of trying to explain the law’s nuances while at the same time assuring visitors that the welcome mat was out.
The law signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on April 23 requires people to carry proof of legal status or face arrest.
The measure, scheduled to take effect this summer, makes it a misdemeanor to be in Arizona without documentation that proves legal residence or status. The law also requires law enforcement officials to check the legal status of anyone suspected of being in Arizona illegally.
Critics say the law is discriminatory; Mexican President Felipe Calderon slammed it as being racist and hateful.
As of April 29, six days after the legislation was signed, the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau reported that four meetings had been canceled as a result of the bill’s passage. Spokeswoman Laura McMurchie said that "the properties involved are being protective of the groups' names."
Meanwhile, the CVB "is fielding myriad alls from potential leisure and meetings visitors" seeking assurance that they would be welcome in Arizona, McMurchie said.
Debbie Johnson, president and CEO of the Arizona Hotel & Lodging Association, which represents hundreds of hotels, bed and breakfasts and resorts, reported that the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association immediately canceled its fall conference set for Phoenix.
"We cannot in good conscience spend association dollars in a state that dehumanizes the people we represent and fight for," Bernie Wolfsdorf, president of the lawyers group, said in a statement.
However, the American Hotel & Lodging Association did not back down from plans to hold its summer summit in Scottsdale, June 15 and 16.
"We do not support in any way a boycott of one of Arizona’s biggest industries, because these ill-advised actions hurt the state’s 1,100 lodging properties and their 52,000 employees and their families," AH&LA CEO Joe McInerney said in a statement.
The association instead encouraged visitors to travel to Arizona to "support the state’s hospitality industry and to leave state politics to its residents."
Further objection to a boycott came from Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the U.S. Travel Association.
"We fear that government leaders discouraging travel to Arizona could be counterproductive and hurt the travel industry employees in the state who rely on visitors for their livelihoods," Freeman said.
The National Minority Supplier Development Council, scheduled to hold its annual convention in Phoenix in October, issued a statement deploring the passage of the immigration law.
"It does not take effect for 90 days, and there is a good possibility that it will never go into effect," said President Harriet R. Michel.
For now, that convention is still on the books.
Anger fueled the boycott movement, which quickly spread to the Internet, where a Boycott Arizona campaign was launched at www.thepetitionsite.com.
"It’s the 200,000 families employed in Arizona’s travel industry who are the victims here," Johnson said. "Although I understand the political concerns surrounding this law, these families are innocent victims being caught in the pocketbook."
Moreover, she added, "They already were hard hit last year by the AIG crisis, when our convention business disappeared" after the backlash over corporate travel.
Johnson said her group’s members "are concerned. They are hearing from folks who visit and who are concerned as to how this crisis will play out."
Johnson said the travel industry "is being branded in so many ways. We are trying to work with the governor’s office, but this has similarities to 1987 when Arizona rescinded Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a public holiday, which led to the cancellation of conventions worth millions of dollars as a result."
Because of that, Arizona lost 170 conventions and other events, including the Super Bowl in 1993, and $300 million in revenue between 1990 and 1993.
San Francisco Supervisor David Campos was one of a rising chorus calling for a boycott of state travel to Arizona. Campos told city employees not to travel on official business to Arizona.
"My concerns are targeted at the state leadership who wrote this law," Campos said. "The leadership has taken the wrong course, and this law must be changed."
According to the Arizona Office of Tourism, in 2008 the industry generated more than $18.5 billion in visitor spending and another $1.4 billion in local and state tax revenues and supported 167,000 jobs.
Visitors from Mexico accounted for 3.8 million of the state’s 37.4 million visitors that year, according to state figures.
Kristen Jarnagin, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, said the state was only now beginning to recover from the effects of the global recession and the swine flu outbreak last year.
The corporate sector took a big hit in 2009 "because we have a lot of luxury resorts, golf courses and spas that attract that market as well as the leisure segment," Jarnagin said.
"A sustained economic boycott will end up hurting the tourism industry workers who rely on visitors to feed their families. The tourism industry is the largest industry in the state, and probably the largest employer of minorities in the state. It is these people who will suffer if visitors stay away from Arizona."
The Arizona hotel group’s Facebook page posted a plea: "Don’t Boycott AZ Tourism."
"We want to remind people that there is a human face to this issue," Jarnagin said. "That face is the worker at our resorts, hotels and restaurants. We understand and feel the emotions, but let’s not hurt all these innocent employees who have had nothing to do with this controversy."
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said that since conventions represent a large source of visitors and revenue for Arizona, targeting that market would be the most effective way to make the point.
Johnson disagreed, saying that "to punish the tourism industry and the hundreds of thousands of families who depend on it for their livelihoods is unfair when we were not involved in the development of this legislation."
As the controversy heated up, other cities and states moved in to pitch visitors who are looking for alternatives to Arizona venues.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city welcomed "those visitors and businesses that want to come here." New York, Bloomberg said, stood to benefit from another state "undermining its own competitive edge."
Steve Moore, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau, pointed out that "Arizona tourism is currently in a very fragile state of recovery. Negative perceptions surrounding this legislation are tarnishing Arizona’s image and could have a devastating effect on our state. Like conventions, visitors also have choices, and we will never know the full impact that critical issues have on those choices."
Moore emphasized that the tourism industry had no part in the development or passage of the immigration law, "but we are certain to experience the unintended consequences of the economic backlash. Tourism is being used as a leverage for a political issue with no direct connection to our industry."