From the Corn Belt to the Bible Belt, tourism groups are
using increasing political clout to protect their interests in the face of
so-called religious-freedom bills, designed to give legal cover to citizens who
wish to discriminate against the LGBT community on religious grounds.
New Orleans’ tourism marketers took the fight to the top
last week when they openly rebelled against Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s
executive order protecting those who refuse to tolerate same-sex marriages on
The tourism officials termed Jindal’s edict a “campaign
document,” pointing out that he had earlier formed an exploratory committee to
ascertain his chances as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination
Jindal issued the executive order after a bill with the same
intent, titled the Marriage and Conscience Act, was defeated in a 10-2 vote by
a committee of the state legislature.
The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB)
distanced itself from Jindal’s order and in a joint statement with the New
Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., declared it “a political statement by our
conservative governor in support of his national position on the issue,” and
“its effect in essence is that of a political campaign document.”
The statement also said that Jindal’s decree was
unconstitutional because Louisiana’s constitution “prohibits an executive order
from enacting substantive law.”
A recent flurry of such “religious freedom” bills has been
widely attacked as veiled attempts to circumvent recent U.S. Supreme Court
decisions holding that states cannot prohibit same-sex marriages.
Speaking at the Travel Weekly Leadership Forum in New Orleans
on May 21, NOCVB President Stephen Perry said his group had worked hard to
prevent the Marriage and Conscience Act from passing, arguing that if it had,
80% to 85% of the city’s top convention customers told him they would have been
unlikely to return.
Perry compared the act to Indiana’s Religious Freedom
Restoration Act, enacted into law in March but later amended after a national
outcry prompted two major conventions to pull out of Indianapolis and New York
State to issue a ban against nonessential government travel to Indiana. Both
moves were rescinded after the law was amended.
Confirming Perry’s fears, a New York lawmaker requested that
Gov. Andrew Cuomo take similar action against Louisiana, but Perry said he was
confident he could convince Cuomo that Jindal’s order would not hold up.
“We stand for religious freedom, but we do not stand and
will not stand for bigotry and intolerance in the marketplace,” he said.
In Indiana, tourism interests were also pivotal in having
the original bill amended.
Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy, Indianapolis’
marketing arm, said his group opposed the bill from the beginning and on the
day it went into effect put an LGBT rainbow flag and the text “All are welcome
in Indy” on its website’s homepage.
Visit Indy's messaging on its website shows the city welcomes everyone. There is a prominently placed link to the city’s LGBT guide.
Gahl said that it was widely acknowledged that pressure from
the state’s tourism industry, the seventh largest in Indiana, had helped get
the bill amended.
“Tourism is an economic engine for the state and Indy in
particular,” he said, noting that visitors to the city generate $4.4 billion in
economic impact and support 75,000 jobs. “When [Indianapolis] is impacted, it
affects sales tax collected statewide.”
Despite the amendment, Gahl said there could be lasting
“We received more than 1,000 emails from consumers who said
they’d been planning a trip to Indy, but because of the bill, even in its
amended form, they wouldn’t travel here,” he said.
Perry said he sees a growing national movement of social
conservatives and religious groups organizing to fight what they anticipate
will be a Supreme Court ruling in June protecting same-sex marriage.
“It’s becoming a profound issue in America,” Perry said,
“especially in cities with large conventions and special events. Based on the
letters we’re seeing, it affects the leisure traveler dramatically, as well,
because every one of them emotionally connects with the places they choose to
As the economic impact of travel grows, Perry said industry
leaders are wielding more clout.
“The tourism industry is beginning to position itself as
thought leaders in American business and in American politics,” he said. “As we
develop more political strength and have a broader base, we have come together
to articulate those things which affect us which involve thousands of small
businesses and hundreds of thousands of employees. Our voice is being heard.”