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Utah Tourism: Doing Damage Control

Utah: Firing squads - not a great tourist campaign

Mike Gorrell  Apr 25, 2010

Although news of Ronnie Lee Gardner's selection of execution by firing squad traveled quickly around the world, there is little expectation that his choice will significantly impact Utah's tourism and convention industries.

"I'm sure there are some people who have negative belief systems about that," observed Colin Fryer, owner of Red Cliffs Lodge outside of tourist-dependent Moab and a member of the Utah Board of Tourism Development.

"They may get political for a minute, but when they get right down to it, they wouldn't not come to Utah because of a firing squad," he said Saturday. "We couldn't even keep tourists away because we didn't have liquor by the drink. Besides, there will be other people who say I support [capital punishment], and because of that, I will check Utah out. If there's any negativity, there will be positivity, too."

Capital punishment critics contended Gardner's execution by firing squad will attract news media attention, likely to stigmatize Utah as holding to barbaric practices from an Old West, frontier mentality.

There was some reaction along that line as the news story was published on Web sites across the U.S. and in far-flung places such as Pakistan ( Sindh Today ), Australia ( Sydney Morning Herald and The Age ), Great Britain ( The Guardian ), Ireland ( Irish Times ) and Scotland ( ).

Adrian Weckler, a 36-year-old journalist from Dublin who last year visited several national and state parks in Utah, said, "The firing squad thing definitely has a negative effect on Utah's image among people in Ireland. I can only assume it's the same across Western Europe, no country of which has the death penalty.

"You have to realize that there are only two things that people know about Utah in Europe. Firstly, that it's Mormon. Secondly, that Robert Redford lives there. Now there's a third thing: firing squads," he said. "Not a great tourist campaign."

Critical opinions such as that are part of the reason Troy Oldham, a lecturer in Utah State University's public relations department, recommended state tourism officials be active, rather than reactive, in addressing the issue.

"People always have the choice of voting with their dollars and if this is an issue people are polarized on, this could have an impact," he said.

He suggested that a Web site could disseminate information about why Gardner was convicted and why a firing squad was an option to him.

"Just get the information out," Oldham said. "The state's role is to provide the facts and let the facts speak for themselves."

But Danny Richardson, executive director of the private-sector Utah Tourism Industry Coalition, does not believe that is the right approach, even as he acknowledged that the issue could subtly impact some people's travel habits.

"You could be strong and do press releases to divert attention. But we're not going to change people's opinions," he said. "I don't think there's anything we could or should do."

Ted Hallisey, now an independent producer of a state recreation guide and a radio tourism report, took the same position. And he's had experience with boycott threats, having served formerly as tourism director for Kane County when it became embroiled in county seat Kanab's passage of a resolution endorsing "natural families."

Although influential travel guide Frommer's advised people to bypass Kanab, Hallisey said the boycott "never came to fruition. We still maintained good tourism figures and businesses had a profit every year. There were a lot less repercussions than we thought.

"You'll find people on both sides of the fence," he said. "Tourists are going to come regardless. Zion, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon and the Grand Staircase continue to be attractions to people who aren't even aware of the issue."

Hoping that's the case for his industry, Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty has decided to maintain a low profile on the subject, noting only that "I think the impact will be limited, but it certainly doesn't help."

To Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau spokesman Shawn Stinson, Gardner's execution will be a complete "non-issue" for people deciding where to stage their group's upcoming meetings.

"Maybe we'll get more attention because [a firing squad execution] doesn't happen that often," he said, "but I don't see it as having an impact on tourism or convention sales whatsoever."

Utah: Firing squads -  not a great tourist campaign
Ronnie Lee Gardner to be put to death by firing squad in June / Image via


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