Indiana tourism agencies are rolling out campaigns emphasizing that everyone is welcome, but it might not be enough to quickly restore the state’s battered image after a backlash over its religious objections law.
An uproar sparked by fears that the law would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians led a few convention organizers and performers to cancel events and some state and local governments to ban travel to the state last week. Revisions to the law’s language have eased some of the criticism, but experts say the state could be dealing with a damaged reputation for years to come.
In a sign that Indiana is still under close scrutiny, hundreds of gay rights supporters marched to the site of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball championship in Indianapolis on Saturday as fans were arriving for the championship tournament games. The marchers called for the state to go further and enshrine in its civil rights law protection for gays and lesbians.
Visit Indy vice president Chris Gahl said he has been in “full crisis mode” since the furor erupted after Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the law late last month.
Gahl said Visit Indy received more than 800 e-mails from people saying they were canceling trips for events such as the Indianapolis 500 or choosing a different vacation destination. The agency has been scrambling to prevent groups and businesses from either pulling out of negotiations for future conventions or canceling upcoming events altogether.
Two groups, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, have canceled conventions, and Gahl said two others were on the fence. He put the economic impact of those events at a “healthy eight figures.”
“What keeps us up at night is the fact that 75,000 people depend on tourism for a paycheck,” Gahl said. “If we don’t fill the city with conventions and visitors, they don’t work.”
The crisis is not confined to Indianapolis. Fort Wayne, the state’s second-largest city, has had six national conventions express concerns about continuing business in Indiana. If all six pulled out, it would represent a loss of about US$1.2 million in revenue, Visit Fort Wayne chief executive officer Dan O’Connell said.
Businesses say they have been inundated with e-mails from people asking for reassurance that they are welcome in Indiana, or canceling orders or plans. The French Lick Resort, a well-known hotel in a historic town in southern Indiana, issued a statement on Friday last week saying it has “always been open and inclusive” and that the new law would not change that.
The impact is being most keenly felt in Indianapolis, which has earned national praise for its transformation from a place once referred to as “Naptown” and “India-No-Place” to a vibrant, friendly city that used sports and a downtown renaissance to land a Super Bowl and become a popular pit stop in what was once called “flyover country.”
Indy Big Data, a tech convention scheduled to take place next month, has lost nine national sponsors, including Amazon.com Inc and Cloudera Inc. GenCon, the city’s largest convention, has a contract with the city until 2020 to hold the annual gaming convention, but Gahl said negotiations to extend the agreement for another five years could fall through because of the outcry over the law. A departure of GenCon, which brings in about US$56 million each year, would be a huge loss, Gahl said.
Although lawmakers have revised the language of the religious objections law to make clear that it is not intended to discriminate, Indiana still lacks statewide civil-rights protections for the gay and lesbian community.
Indiana University economics professor Kyle Anderson said Indiana already had a hard time competing on a national level to bring in top talent. For young professionals who tend to be more progressive about social issues, the law could be another reason for them to avoid jobs within the state.
“The last week will perpetuate the notion that it’s not a great place to live,” he said. “I think that will live on for quite a while, unfortunately.”
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