The Iowa Tourism Office found itself responsible for an unlikely task last week: back peddling Rep. Steve King’s controversial anti-immigration comments and encouraging prospective travelers to keep their plans to visit the state.
A travel boycott of Iowa could have serious economic impact on the state, which takes in around $8 billion a year in tourism revenue, according to state officials. Last week, staffers grappled with an unwieldy influx of correspondence following Representative King's retweet of a post endorsing Geert Wilders, a controversial, far-right candidate for Dutch prime minister who came in second place during a Wednesday election.
Seeking to separate politics and the office, staffers have tried to send a welcoming message to travelers.
"We’re in a politically charged environment," Shawna Lode, the tourism office’s manager, said Friday, according to The Des Moines Register.
"People have strong opinions about lots of things," she added. "They are free to share their thoughts with us, and we’ll continue to say that Iowa is a welcoming place and we welcome all people."
King wrote on Twitter that Mr. Wilders “understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies.”
The anti-immigrant message sparked outrage around the state and nationally among both Democrats and Republicans. It also emboldened white supremacists like David Duke, former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who came forward in agreement.
Despite rebuke from his own party and state, King later defended his statements.
"You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else's babies," he said in a CNN interview last Monday. "You've got to keep your birth rate up, and that you need to teach your children your values. In doing so, you can grow your population, you can strengthen your culture, and you can strengthen your way of life."
Many have directed their criticism at King, but others have turned to the state’s tourism office with their outrage and concerns.
Tourism boycotts have become common responses to issues of discrimination. Last year, travelers, artists, and companies vowed to steer clear of North Carolina as the state grappled with its controversial House Bill 2, a measure that required people to use the public restroom corresponding with the gender on their birth certificate, thereby barring transgender people from using the bathroom matching their gender identity.
The Williams Institute, a think tank at University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, estimated that North Carolina risked $5 billion in federal funding, business revenue, and tourism by implementing the law.
After a year of back and forth debate, the state is taking steps in a lengthy process to repeal the law.
“The longer it stays on our books, the more difficulty we will have repairing the damage,” Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said last week. “It’s hard to quantify the damage.”
Travel boycotts aren’t a new phenomenon. In 1992, a boycott of Colorado cost the state more than $10 million in tourism and convention revenue. That came after voters approved a referendum that repealed anti-LGBT discrimination ordinances in several cities.
While these tactics send a message to the state, they also can impact more vulnerable small businesses that don’t support certain measures. Critics of the methods say the often hurt the wrong people.
“I bring up the possibility of being more strategic when boycotting, not to undermine those places that are on your side of an issue, so that when this is all over, and the legislation repealed, those places are healthy, and the communities they serve are healthy,” Linda-Marie Barrett, an independent bookstore owner in Asheville, N.C., who worried about the bathroom bill’s impact on her business, told The Washington Post last year.
But Iowa’s situation is different. A single person’s comments, rather than a statewide policy, is up for debate, and many in the state have rushed to counter King’s rhetoric and display itself as an accepting place open to diversity.
The state’s tourism office has drafted a response to send potential tourists who contact staffers with concerns. Officials are emphasizing that the comments do not reflect the state government or the values of those who live there, and say some of the dissent has quieted.
Still, some are anxious about a continued fallout from the comments.
"Look at Lake Okoboji – it’s a fantastic place to go in the summer. You hate to think even one person doesn’t go there because some guy made a comment," David Bernstein, a member of the Iowa Economic Development Authority board and local businessman, told the Register. "I think that sometimes elected officials – specifically Congressman King – don't think of anything but themselves when they make those bigoted comments. And there's a direct impact on the business of Iowa tourism."