Mississippi tourism industry faces criticism, braces for backlash

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A battle is shaping up across the country over various pieces of legislation that proponents argue protects religious beliefs while others argue are tools to discriminate.

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.

™ & © 2016 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.


  • hocuspocus13

    Did anyone ask the women how they feel about guys in their bathrooms?

    Or the parents of little girls how they feel about guys with male genitals in the bathroom with their daughters?

    As a woman I want my privacy and do not want guys with lipstick and dresses in the bathroom with me…KEEP OUT

  • bob

    Funny how these articles never quantify the “backlash.” How big was Mississippi’s LGBTQIFATM tourism industry anyway?

    • bob

      “Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer I’ll-F***-Anything-That-Moves”, in case you’re wondering.

      Of course, that acronym discriminates against necrophiliac Obama voters.

  • bob

    A law that allows people the freedom to choose? OMG! Kill it! Kill it with fire!

    We can’t allow people to start thinking for themselves. Next thing you know they might decide that liberalism is a mental disorder.

  • whynot

    Like other States, (Georgia, Indiana, etc.) as soon as they see this hit them in the wallet, they’ll back off than faster than than you can say “Dueling banjos”.


      So your saying that morality has a price? Don’t inflict your sexual confusion on the rest of us.

      • whynot

        Yes, standing up for your beliefs has a price, and so far, none of these States have been willing to pay it. Georgia , for instance, passed a law just like this. When the NFL threatened to yank the Superbowl, and Disney said “No more movie locations in Georgia”, the Governor tucked his tail between his legs and vetoed the bill. Same in Indiana. Easy to talk the talk, Better to keep your mouth shut about your “beliefs” than claim to have them and sell them out.


        Bruce Jenner may be able to fool you and you may be willing to buy into his foolishness but he doesn’t fool Mother Nature and he doesn’t fool normal human beings that know the difference between boys and girls.

      • whynot

        @ a-bob ..My comment is about proclaiming morals and then selling them out. Doesn’t have anything to do with the “gay” thing you’re obsessed with. One observation, since it’s the only subject you can discuss. If you had been born gay and of average intelligence, you would be much better served than your present predicament. You could always hide your homosexuality. Witless and stupid? Not so much.

  • David Whittington

    Mississippi is also the state that refused to serve black people at restaurants LONG after the South lost the Civil War. The LGBT struggles for human rights in the South parallel the same struggles African Americans have endured. The major FACT in all this that the Southern Good Ole Boy Hillbilly giant minds are missing is being gay is NOT a choice – it is biology. NO one ‘chooses’ to be gay – they just ARE gay. If you want to drag some God into this debate, then you must conclude God MADE these people gay. This is a FACT the Southern Hillbillies cannot seem to grasp and it also a FACT many idiots on this comment board cannot seem to grasp. So let me say this one more time: NO one ‘chooses’ to be gay – God MADE them gay. I would encourage anyone who disagrees with this FACT to go read a book !


      No David, God doesn’t make some men homosexual. Mother Nature makes a boo-boo sometimes but She has a way of correcting Her errors. Just ask the men in San Francisco who seek love in a public restroom and then wonder why they have AIDS.

  • Ric

    To all you bobs out there, Go preach christ in the middle east and see how far your misguided morals get you. This is why America is great we dont have to goose step with everybody for fear we will be killed.

  • TruthSeeker

    It’s about time a state steps up and does the right thing. Our Constitution says we all have religious freedom, freedom to do as we believe and not be forced to do the opposite. Well done, Mississippi.

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