Indiana governor’s hometown takes tourism hit from religious freedom act

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COLUMBUS, Ind. (April 1, 2015)  – Indianapolis isn’t the only city in Indiana impacted by the state’s controversial religious freedom act. Smaller cities and towns across the state said they’re feeling the backlash, too. Tourism officials in Columbus told us tourists are canceling trips left and right.

“Columbus has been hit,” said Lynn Lucas, Executive Director, Columbus Area Visitors Center.

The local newspaper told it all Wednesday as it sat just near a downtown street, the headline “Feeling the Heat” with Governor Mike Pence’s picture right on front. Columbus, after all, is his hometown.

Tourism there is taking a dive, with those canceling trips because of perceived discrimination against the LGBT community included in Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Wednesday, Republican lawmakers worked to try and offer a fix to the bill, as ordered by Pence, after days of saying he stood behind the bill as-written.

Lucas said they’ve had 13 cancellations, and on Wednesday morning she got a typed up letter from an Illinois man, canceling a five-day trip to Indiana because of the new law. Thirty people from California told Lucas they would not be visiting Columbus the day after Pence signed the bill into law.

“This group was very interested in our modern architecture, had planned to be in Columbus for about a week. And thirty people spending a week in Columbus, that means a lot of dollars would’ve been spent. This affects jobs,” she said.

The central Indiana city attracts three million visitors a year. Its architecture and modern buildings are a big draw, like the downtown library designed by famed architect I.M. Pei.

“Anything that makes traffic less is not good,” said Terry Whittaker, of Viewpoint Books.

He’s run the downtown independent bookstore for 42 years. It’s the type of mom and pop shop that catches a tourist’s eye. Whittaker knows that and put up an “open for service” sticker, trying to shake Indiana’s new stigma.

“I understand the arguments, both sides and misrepresentation, but the damage has been done. And the perception is really the reality,” he said.

It’s a reality that includes visitors protesting Indiana’s politics with their pocketbooks.

And with no clear end in sight, Lucas said she realizes it isn’t a quick fix.

“My first take is that it would be a couple of days, and now we’re into the second week. So at this point, I would say it’s larger than I expected,” she said.

Lucas serves on the board of the Indiana Tourism Association. She said the group knows this is a significant challenge the state will have to overcome. And she also said it’s important to point out the impact is state-wide, with various cities, towns, and counties expressing concerns about their tourism industry moving forward.

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