Mississippi tourism industry faces criticism, braces for backlash

Posted at 3:04 PM, Apr 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-09 17:04:03-04

By Catherine E. Shoichet


(CNN) — How do you persuade tourists to travel to your state when there’s a growing chorus of criticism over a new law many gay rights groups slam as discriminatory?

That’s an issue the travel industry in Mississippi is facing after Gov. Phil Bryant signed a controversial religious freedom bill Tuesday.

Here’s a look at some high-profile criticisms of the new law, and how some tourism officials are responding.

‘Oppressive laws to go with our oppressive heat’

Under the law, religious organizations can deny LGBT people marriage, adoption and foster care services; fire or refuse to employ them; and decline to rent or sell them property. Medical professionals will be permitted to refuse to participate in treatments, counseling and surgery related to “sex reassignment or gender identity transitioning.”

Bryant and other state officials have maintained that the law protects sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.

“The legislation is designed in the most targeted manner possible to prevent government interference in the lives of the people,” he says.

But gay rights groups and businesses have decried it as discriminatory. And online, the tweets and memes mocking Mississippi have been flying almost as quickly as calls to boycott the state.

The day the bill was signed, the Funny or Die website posted a parody tourism video campaign.

The mock ad shows idyllic scenes while a sweet-voiced announcer talks about the state and guitar music plays in the background.

“We’re Mississippi. We’re proud of our Southern values, magnolia trees and hot days. Now, thanks to Gov. Bryant,” she says, “we have oppressive laws to go with our oppressive heat.”

Cover girl controversy

The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, pointed out a surprising contradiction Thursday.

“Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts, who came out to the public in a Facebook post in 2013, is on the cover of Mississippi’s official state tourism publication, and prominently shown on the state’s tourism website.

The tourism guide was published months ago, long before House Bill 1523 made headlines.

But the Advocate story drew fresh attention to it with the headline, “Lesbian Journalist Robin Roberts Is Mississippi Tourism’s Cover Girl.”

“Roberts advises first-time visitors to enter Mississippi with an open mind,” the tourism guide article says, “ready to experience that great food, perfect weather and what she calls ‘true Southern hospitality.'”

“That ‘Southern hospitality,'” The Advocate wrote Thursday, “now includes what LGBT activists have decried as the nation’s strongest pro-discrimination law.”

Roberts issued a statement through ABC on Saturday:

“Last year well before recent events, I was interviewed and photographed to be on the cover of Mississippi’s official state tourism publication. I’ve often boasted about the beautiful people, delicious food and my picturesque hometown of Pass Christian.

“My longtime partner, Amber, and I have always felt welcomed in my home state, and it hurts my soul to think of anyone not feeling welcome.

“It’s always been a deeply held belief of mine that everyone, everywhere should be treated equally. I’m proud that my beloved mother and father taught me as a child growing up in Mississippi to focus on the many things we all have in common, not our few differences. And what we all deserve to have in common is the right to be treated equally.”

‘Everyone’s welcome’ campaign

The criticism is something the Mississippi Hospitality & Restaurant Association says it isn’t taking lightly.

The group announced a new campaign Thursday dubbed “Everyone’s Welcome Here.”

“When HB 1523 was signed, Mississippi was thrust into the national spotlight. Regardless of its intent, this legislation has created a level of controversy and public perception that affects the image of our state and the hospitality community,” Mike Cashion, the organization’s executive director, said in a written statement.

The plan, he said, is to design and print door decals for businesses to convey the message, and spread the word on social media.

“Our industry serves a diverse customer base and we want to make sure all customers are appreciated and welcomed. We have a very clear and strong message to convey,” he said. “Mississippi’s restaurant industry is open for everyone’s business.”

Tourism association: People are canceling trips

The Mississippi Tourism Association said Thursday that it’s been hearing from its members.

“Our members statewide are reporting calls, emails and social media posts from people canceling or postponing trips to Mississippi due to national media reporting on this new law,” the association said.

As a result, the statement said, the association plans to step up its efforts to send a clear message that all are welcome.

“As the industry on the front line, cheerfully welcoming visitors to our home,” the association said, “we are redoubling our efforts to demonstrate that Mississippi is indeed the Hospitality State.”

CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin, Joseph Netto, Amanda Jackson and Phil Gast contributed to this report.

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