Politics & Government

Will LGBT bill affect Coast tourism? Professionals weigh in

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 Renee Areng, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Renee Areng, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. SUN HERALD

The head of the regional tourism bureau on the Coast just wrapped up a multistate tourism conference in Baton Rouge.

Culinary tourism was supposed to be the focus of this year's Southeast Tourism Society meeting that brings together tourism experts from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Guess what else they talked about.

Yes, it was the Mississippi Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.

"North Carolina was there, Georgia was there," Renee Areng, executive director of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast said. "Louisiana has a similar bill; looks like it is going to die in committee.

"We were talking about how it's new territory for all of us. Rarely does a statewide policy affect tourism. We're destination marketers, not policy makers."

She said the bureau hasn't received any negative comments from potential conventions or other visitors.

A few states have banned official state travel on the Coast but Areng didn't know if that would bleed over to the tourism market.

"Those states that are coming out -- Minnesota, New York and Vermont -- are not in the Top 10 of states that visited the Gulf Coast," she said. About 5.8 million people visited the Coast in 2015, she said, which was about a third of the state's tourism market. Most of the state's visitors come from Southeast states, according to welcome center registrations. Illinois was 10th with just over 40,000 visitors in 2014, the latest statistics available.

"We'll certainly continue to monitor it," Areng said. "We have not heard of any cancellations."

She said they've receive a handful of phone calls about the issue but they referred them to the governor's office.

Jeff Rent, spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority, issued a pair of statements on behalf of MDA and Visit Mississippi, the statewide tourism bureau.

He wrote about MDA:

 "Mississippi remains committed to strengthening the state's already vibrant business climate to create more career opportunities for our people. Mississippi is consistently recognized as a top state for doing business thanks to advantages such as our favorable tax climate, skilled and productive workforce and our proven, reliable infrastructure."

And about tourism:

"Mississippi welcomes all visitors to our great state," Visit Mississippi's statement said. "The state is widely known for its cultural, recreational and entertainment offerings. Everyone is invited to come and experience Mississippi for themselves."

Rent didn't say whether the state has heard about anyone boycotting because of the new law signed by the governor Tuesday.

"Mississippi remains committed to strengthening the state's already vibrant business climate to create more career opportunities for our people," Rent said on behalf of MDA. "Mississippi is consistently recognized as a top state for doing business thanks to advantages such as our favorable tax climate, skilled and productive workforce and our proven, reliable infrastructure."

Several large employers, including Nissan and Toyota, have issued statements against the new law that supporters, such as Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, say "merely protects individuals from government interference when practicing their religious beliefs."

LGBT activists, and many business owners on the Coast, say it discriminates against LGBT people.

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