The Iowa Tourism Office generally receives about two complaints a month from travelers who leave the state peeved about picking up a speeding ticket or dissatisfied with an unpleasant hotel stay.
But in the days following U.S. Rep Steve King's recent controversial comments, staff responded to about 60 tweets a day, not to mention emails, Facebook posts and calls from potential tourists, officials said Friday.
Many would-be travelers vowed to cancel spring or summer trips to Iowa. Some longtime attendees of an annual bike ride across Iowa promised to ditch the trek after King tweeted Sunday a suggestion that Muslim children are preventing “our civilization” from being restored, officials from the Iowa Tourism Office told The Des Moines Register on Friday.
David Bernstein, a member of the Iowa Economic Development Authority board, aired the tourists' concerns at the board's monthly meeting on Friday. The economic development authority, which oversees the Iowa Tourism Office, says tourism contributes $8 billion in economic activity to the state. And Bernstein said King's statements could hurt businesses looking to woo travelers.
King, who was retweeting a message endorsing Geert Wilders, a far-right candidate who came in second during Wednesday's election for Dutch prime minister, said Wilders “understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies.” While Iowa Republicans disavowed King's statement, former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke embraced the congressman's rhetoric.
That left state officials who market Iowa as a travel destination playing defense as they sought distance from King's charged rhetoric. Shawna Lode, manager of the Iowa Tourism Office, said staff members ensured potential tourists, particularly minorities, that Iowans were welcoming of all.
"We’re in a politically charged environment," she said after Friday's meeting. "People have strong opinions about lots of things. 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."
State officials this week offered many responses like this one on the Travel Iowa Twitter account: "Iowans are diverse, progressive and tolerant. We welcome all people to experience our state."
Bernstein, a Sioux City businessman appointed to the board, said the backlash this week reached a "new level."
"This was the worst one ever. I live in his district and have been following him a long time," he said. "And, being Jewish, I am particularly sensitive to his perspective. This was by far the worst set of comments he ever made."
"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," Bernstein said. "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."
King's office did not immediately respond to the Register's request for comment Friday.
The congressman is no stranger to controversy. In July, he said white Christians have contributed more to Western civilization than any other “subgroup." In September, King spoke out against silent protests by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, calling those efforts "activism that's sympathetic to ISIS."
Bernstein said King's comments do not reflect the views of most Iowans.
Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority Director, which oversees the tourism office, said she personally drafted an email to send to potential tourists who voice concerns. In it, she said King's comments did not reflect the views of Iowans or her department.
"That seems to have quieted down greatly," she said, "and hopefully it's behind us."
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