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Georgia tourism officials already feel heat from immigration bill

By A. Pawlowski, CNN
A horse-drawn carriage passes by a historic house in Savannah, Georgia, one of the state's tourist hot spots.
A horse-drawn carriage passes by a historic house in Savannah, Georgia, one of the state's tourist hot spots.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Georgia tourism industry braces for possible fallout from new law
  • Gov. Nathan Deal is preparing to sign the controversial immigration reform bill
  • Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau calls the bill "unwelcoming"
  • Group says it will move its conference outside Georgia if governor signs the bill

(CNN) -- True to its official state song, Georgia is on the mind of many people these days but not for the reasons the state's tourism industry might be hoping for.

As Gov. Nathan Deal prepares to sign a controversial immigration reform bill, critics of the legislation are eyeing the state's lucrative hospitality sector as a way to vent their anger and force change.

Sound familiar? A similar campaign began a year ago in Arizona in response to that state's immigration law, prompting dozens of groups to cancel meetings or conventions and causing some tourists to book trips elsewhere.

As Georgia braces for any potential backlash, Arizona continues to gauge the impact of the protests.

The state's resorts and hotels are still having trouble attracting meetings of national associations, according to an analysis published last week by the Arizona Daily Star.

"There's no doubt that there's a lingering effect," Richard Vaughan, a senior vice president at the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitor Bureau, told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, a report by the liberal Center for American Progress estimated Arizona lost $141 million in direct spending by convention attendees after passage of the law prompted dozens of groups to cancel their meetings.

(There were also counter-protests: some people in favor of the law said they would book trips to Arizona specifically as a way of expressing their support for the state.)

Arizona's tourism industry continues to be an economic driver, said Gov. Jan Brewer in a statement.

The state's lodging occupancy in March saw an almost 6% increase over the same time period in 2010, the Arizona Office of Tourism said on its website.

Atlanta responds

Hoping to head off any boycotts, some Georgia tourism officials are asking Deal to change his mind.

Late last month, the executive committee of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau passed a resolution voicing opposition to the bill, calling it "unwelcoming."

About 34 million conventioneers and tourists visit Atlanta every year, generating more than $10 billion, the agency noted.

"Atlanta's hospitality community is concerned that negative perceptions associated with this legislation could tarnish Atlanta's reputation as one of America's most welcoming cities," the resolution reads.

"The loss of potential revenues associated with conventions and tourism would have an adverse effect on Atlanta's economy."

Calls for a boycott

So far, no groups have contacted the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau to cancel a meeting, said spokeswoman Lauren Jarrell.

But there are rumblings of a protest. The group Southerners on New Ground is calling for a national boycott of conventions and vacation travel to Georgia, while a blog entry on the website of the group Somos Georgia warns "Veto HB87 or Boycott! It's your choice, Governor Deal!!"

Immigration reform now?
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And last week, the US Human Rights Network, which bills itself as a coalition of civil and human rights organizations, announced that it would move its 2011 national conference -- scheduled for December in Atlanta -- outside Georgia if Deal follows through with his intent to sign the bill.

"Unless Gov. Deal vetoes this bill or until it is repealed, the Network will honor its commitment to the rights of all individuals by taking its business elsewhere," said Ajamu Baraka, the group's executive director, in a statement.

"The last thing that Georgia needs in these difficult economic times is to follow Arizona's path and become a national pariah."

Tourism is big for Georgia

The Georgia Legislature passed the immigration reform law last month.

Among other things, the bill allows law enforcement officers to ask about immigration status when questioning suspects in certain criminal investigations. It punishes people who transport illegal immigrants during the commission of a crime and imposes hefty prison sentences on those who use fake documents to get jobs.

Supporters blame illegal immigrants for overcrowding Georgia's schools and forcing taxpayers to shoulder the burden of paying for emergency room medical care for undocumented residents.

Opponents argue that the bill could encourage racial profiling and discrimination. They also said the measure could hurt the image and the economy of the state.

Tourists spent almost $20 billion in Georgia and tourism generated more than $31 billion in total economic impact for the state in 2009, the most recent figures available, according to the U.S. Travel Association.