Is It Tourist Season Or Open Season In Florida?

Guns, not fun in the sun, are garnering headlines around the world and threatening Florida's $31 billion tourism business. A spate of highly publicized murders--the latest of a British tourist shot on Sept. 14 in a rest area outside the state capital of Tallahassee--has Florida officials scrambling to save the state's top industry. The crime wave "has wiped out what was going to be a banner year," laments Florida Commerce Secretary Greg Farmer. "There are going to be some double-digit cancellations from Europe."

As part of the state's damage-control program, Governor Lawton Chiles ordered 840 additional police and auxiliary state officers to beef up patrols around major airports, on highways, and near rest areas. A new 1-800 telephone line is fielding calls from worried prospective visitors. And Lieutenant Governor Buddy MacKay appealed personally to President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno for a $4 million federal grant to expand police patrols in Dade County, where a German tourist was murdered on Sept. 8 on a Miami freeway. Farmer also is busily citing statistics that fewer than 0.5% of Florida's 41 million visitors are victims of violent crime.

Overseas tourists, nonetheless, are expected to cancel in droves. There were few British cancellations in the immediate wake of the murder of Gary Colley, 34, killed as he attempted to drive away from two robbers--becoming the ninth foreign tourist murdered in Florida since last fall. But given the lurid headlines in Britain's tabloids and the front-page play even in London's staid newspapers, the Foreign Office acknowledges its 1993 estimate of 1 million British visitors to Florida is overstated. Indeed, Britain's Foreign Office in April took the unusual step of issuing a travel advisory on Florida--its first ever for the U.S.--following the murder of a German tourist who was run over on a Miami street.

Some tour operators are already feeling the impact. Bookings are down 30% to 50% from where they should be for November through April, says Jeff Laylon, of Go America Tours Inc., a company that books mostly German tourists. "We don't plan on it being a good winter," he says. Roberto Willimann, vice-president of Miami-based Specialized Travel Systems Inc., says that summer business was already down by 20%.

PRECAUTIONS. The Florida murders even reverberated on Wall Street. Disney World, which draws 5% of its visitors from Europe, reports no change in its visitor counts. But Goldman, Sachs & Co. analyst Richard P. Simon lowered his 1993 earnings estimate for Disney by 7 a share, citing the vulnerability of its theme parks to U.S. recession and bad publicity from the violence.

Some savvy business travelers are also reconsidering visits to Miami. Chicago-based Baxter Healthcare Corp. issued its first-ever travel advisory for a U.S. city after one of its executives, Thomas Walsh, was robbed at gunpoint on a Miami expressway by the same trio arrested for the Sept. 8 murder of German tourist Uwe-Wilhelm Rakebrand. The advisory warns employees to take extra precautions in Miami if they are renting a car or traveling at night.

All this means bad news for Florida's economy. Miami has been trying to build on its appeal as an international hub for doing business in Latin America. Now, worried Miami economic-development officials are canvassing 300-plus prospects to gauge their concern about crime. Last April, three European companies, which could have added as many as 100 jobs to the area, scratched Miami off their lists because of crime. It's an old lesson, but Florida is learning it anew: Everyone knows crime doesn't pay--in Florida's case it's costing plenty.

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