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Controversial sex sting affects tourism

Hoteliers: Palm Springs tourism still has “black eye”

Mariecar Mendoza  Aug 24, 2010

More than a year after a controversial sex sting in Palm Springs' popular gay resort neighborhood, local hoteliers say the city's tourism industry still has a “black eye.”

But during a public forum organized by the Palm Springs Police Department and the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism on Monday, representatives from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender tourism industry discussed efforts to regain the city's status as a premier gay vacation hot spot.

“Our goal is to continue to have a safe and welcoming destination for all of our visitors, including those from the LGBT community,” said Mary Jo Ginther, director of the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism.

Last summer, police used decoys to arrest more than a dozen men in Warm Sands for lewd conduct, including having public sex. Nineteen of the men now face charges under California Penal Code 314, which would require them to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives on a list available only to law enforcement officers.

The gay tourism industry began to see the fallout from the sting this year after news stories surfaced about a Palm Springs police officer who allegedly made a gay slur while monitoring the 2009 public sex sting.

Publications, online forums and social media tools such as Twitter began spreading the news, turning this question viral: “Is the Palm Springs Police Department anti-gay?”

Tourists' concerns

The Advocate, a national monthly magazine focused on LGBT news, published a story on the sting in June. Stories were also published in The Bay Area Reporter, Bottomline Magazine and EDGE, which boasts a LGBT readership of 500,000 from Provincetown, Mass.; New York; San Francisco and other cities.

In July, the first line in a post on the Long Beach-based Out in the 562 blog read: “Palm Springs' decades old reputation as a welcoming oasis for gays and lesbians has been tarnished.” The blog entry was retweeted for the Twitter community at least once, according to the blog.

Michael Green, owner of the Triangle Inn in Palm Springs, said he was even contacted by a writer in Germany who wanted to know about the sex sting and its effects on the gay resort community.

Recently, owners of The Hacienda at Warm Sands said they talked to loyal and new guests from as far away as Alabama who were now concerned about visiting Palm Springs.

Hacienda co-owner Jim Moje recalled one guest who expressed concerns that coming to Palm Springs would be like “going back in time” when homosexuals were subjected to “police brutality.”

Hillary Angel, public relations manager for the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism, said part of the bureau's job has been to combat the negative perceptions proliferating on the World Wide Web.

Since June, the bureau has responded to eight blogs to spread “a message that we have had a long-standing reputation of being a city that welcomes the LGBT community.”

“From a tourism standpoint, we wanted to let them know that we're still a friendly destination,” Angel said.

The bureau also reached out to regional and national publications to request follow-up stories on the Warm Sands incident to shed light on the positive steps the city and police department are taking to repair its relationship with the LGBT community.

A new approach

Palm Springs Police Department officials have said they too have made strides.

Officers including Lt. Don Fallon and Lt. Dennis Graham have worked with the police department's LGBT Outreach Committee to develop ways to ensure hotel guests are safe while not making them feel they're being targeted.

The strategies include cutting back foliage to deter public acts of lewd conduct and having officers patrol the area on bicycles or on foot to better interact with guests.

Fallon said the department is working with hoteliers to develop signs to post throughout Warm Sands, in hopes of deterring illegal activity while reassuring guest safety.

Moje, who has operated The Hacienda at Warm Sands for 10 years, acknowledged that in the past the area had illegal drug use and criminal activity that the police helped reduce.

“But I didn't want it cleaned up to the point where no one was on the street,” Moje said, referring to his guests feeling comfortable to stroll in the resort community. “We want people to go out and meet other guests at other hotels.”

Fallon said police officials are scheduled to do a site survey of Warm Sands on Monday “to see how we can adjust lights and what kind of things we can do without making it feel like a compound where nobody feels free to walk.”

Moje also suggested the Palm Springs City Council and Police Chief David Dominguez create a welcoming letter for visiting LGBT tourists.

While City Manager David Ready said he has not seen any figures to indicate a drop in the city's gay tourism industry, he acknowledged “there are the anecdotal stories and perception.”

“But if you look at the dollars we spend on gay tourism, it indicates the city's commitment,” Ready said. “And with the changes that the police chief has instituted, in terms of their patrols in the Warm Sands area, that is another reaffirmation that the gay tourist can feel safe in Warm Sands and in the entire city.”

Hoteliers: Palm Springs tourism still has “black eye”
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