The decision by the state Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department not to pay for an ad beckoning gay tourists to South Carolina is an embarrassment. It not only makes the state look unwelcoming and small-minded but also risks losing substantial tourist dollars.
The state's tourism agency initially agreed to pay $5,000 for the ad, which is part of an international campaign by a European travel agency to attract gay and lesbian travelers. Posters appearing in London subway stations proclaimed: "South Carolina is so gay." The same slogan was used to promote Las Vegas, New Orleans, Boston and Atlanta, among other U.S. locations.
But several South Carolina officials, including Gov. Mark Sanford, objected to using public money for the ad, and the state now has refused to pay the agency for it. In addition, the employee at the Tourism Department who approved the ad has resigned, and Republican Sen. David Thomas, in a harassing move, has called for an audit of the state agency's spending.
Sanford said taxpayer money shouldn't be used to promote any group with a particular social or political agenda. But the ad doesn't promote any agenda; it merely invites gays and lesbians to visit South Carolina. We wonder if Sanford would have objected if the poster had said: "South Carolina is so conservative."
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Failing to show typical Southern hospitality to gay tourists also makes no economic sense. Surveys indicate that gay travelers accounted for about $40 billion, or nearly 9 percent, of the $461 billion spent worldwide by U.S. leisure travelers in 2006. The survey also found that gay travelers tend to stay longer at their destinations than other travelers and spend more money while they are there. And they tend to travel more than other tourists.
Tourism is the state's top industry, employing about 200,000 people and bringing in about $10 billion a year from visitors. Gays and lesbians are among those who visit the state whether they are targeted by ads or not. Implying that they are less welcome than other tourists is disgraceful.
The S.C. Board of Economic Advisors announced this week that the state finished its budget year on June 30 about $100 million in the hole. That means across-the-board budget cuts for state agencies that already have trimmed their budgets. This is no time to be discouraging any tourists from visiting the state.
South Carolina Pride, a Columbia organization, has stepped up to reimburse the European travel agency the $5,000 it lost when the state refused to pay for the ad. The group hopes to raise the $5,000 during its Sept. 20 Columbia parade and festival. People across the nation have called to offer money and support.
In addition to raising money, this effort might also help to raise awareness and prevent similar ham-handed actions by state officials in the future.