‘State of Terror’ Image Has Florida Officials Worried
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ A British tabloid has dubbed it the ″State of Terror.″ Canadians have been advised to be careful down there.
And Florida appears to have gotten the message.
A spate of crimes against out-of-state visitors, including the recent slayings of two Canadians, a German and a Briton, has Florida officials unsure whether they face a real crime wave against tourists or overblown publicity.
But they are taking action to make sure vacationers keep coming and return home safe and sound.
″If we allow the assaults to continue on our international visitors the ... sound that you hear will be our state’s economy collapsing,″ said Rep. Alzo Reddick, chairman of the Tourism and Economic Development Committee in the Florida House.
Tourism is Florida’s biggest industry, pumping $28 billion into the state’s economy every year.
″We almost canceled the trip because of all the crime,″ Jaak Valiotes, 21, of Ontario, said Friday as he relaxed at Fort Lauderdale Beach. ″We heard about a lot of Canadians getting killed in Miami. But you can get killed anywhere in the world.″
So far, the publicity hasn’t brought a falloff in the number of visitors, said Commerce Department press secretary April Herrle.
When a tourist gets hurt in Florida, ″it makes headlines everywhere,″ she said. ″If you or I were mugged walking down the street no one would think twice about it.″
The headlines, however, are for crimes more serious than muggings.
Ontario businessman Ralph Passero was shot to death during an apparent robbery attempt Jan. 23 in Sunny Isles, and Mark Nadeau, an Air Canada executive from Quebec, was fatally shot in a Dec. 29 robbery in nearby Lake Worth in south Florida.
In other cases, a German tourist was killed during a robbery attempt in Fort Myers in December, a Briton was killed in Orange County in November, a black New Yorker was set afire and seriously burned on New Year’s Day in a racially motivated attack near Tampa, and a Venezuelan diplomat was slain in Miami last month.
In 1991, 36,512 visitors were robbed, raped, killed or otherwise victimized, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said. That represents 3.5 percent of all crime victims in the state and is virtually unchanged from the two previous years, said spokesman John Joyce.
Florida’s problem is not so much crime against tourists but crime in general, he said. Its state crime rate is second only to the District of Columbia.
To combat that, Gov. Lawton Chiles last week proposed a cigarette tax increase of 25 cents a pack to add 21,000 beds to Florida’s prison system over the next five years. Prisons are so overcrowded that convicts are being put back on the streets after serving half or less of their sentences.
Chiles plans to meet this week with tourism, law enforcement and government leaders to discuss ways to specifically combat crime against tourists.
Reddick said he is considering suggestions to reallocate part of tourism taxes from promotion to security and law enforcement and give hotels tax credits for beefing up their security.
Legislation has been introduced to stop issuing special license tags for rental cars. Existing tags have the notation ″Lease″ on the bottom or begin with the letters ″Y″ or ″Z.″
The Canadian Automobile Association issued a warning this month advising Canadian visitors to Florida to carry low amounts of cash, avoid bad neighborhoods and keep their doors locked, among other things.
Orange County police have increased patrols of areas with heavy tourist concentrations, and Metro Dade Police Department has formed a robbery intervention detail, using undercover agents to try to catch criminals who prey on tourists.
Tourist bureaus in Miami and Orlando for some time have been distributing brochures at hotels, rental car agencies and elsewhere that include safety tips. The state also is preparing such a pamphlet.
″People must remember even though they are relaxing and they are enjoying their vacation and everything is wonderful that they’ve got to use common sense,″ Herrle said. ″You need to stay out of bad areas of town. You need to know where those areas are. You need to lock your doors.″