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Attacks on Visitors Threaten Florida Tourist Industry

April 12, 1993

MIAMI (AP) _ Florida tourist officials expected 1993 to be a record year. Instead, attacks on foreign visitors may put a crack in the state’s $30 billion-a-year golden egg.

″Florida is hurting now,″ said Gary Stogner, spokesman for the state Division of Tourism. ″All of Florida has been damaged by this and that’s just the way we have to approach it.″

The dream vacation in South Florida has become a nightmare for some unlucky foreign tourists who get lost in the confusing maze of roadways between Miami’s airport, downtown and the resort hotels.

The issue, which had been percolating all winter with numerous attacks throughout the state, boiled over last week after the slaying of a German woman who strayed from Interstate 95 in her rental car.

Barbara Meller Jensen, 39, became the seventh foreigner killed this tourist season when she was savagely beaten and run over in front of her two young children and her mother. Two men - already in jail for a similar attack later in the weekend - have been charged with the killing.

The April 2 slaying set off a worldwide outcry. The British and German governments issued travel advisories and one German newspaper blared: ″Florida: Hunting German Tourists.″

″We are not telling people to stay away,″ said Walter Weinberger, Germany’s deputy consul general in Miami.

″This is a beautiful and attractive area,″ he said, but added: ″there are some risks and people should be aware.″

″It’s pretty scary,″ said Marie Deering, a former travel agent visiting from Perth, Australia, who was reading an account of the attack in Friday’s newspaper at a Miami Beach hostel.

″I was nervous driving down from Orlando last night in a rental car,″ she said. ″I’m thinking, ’What if we get lost in the wrong place?‴

Tourism officials are worried that Miami might be seen as the wrong place to travel to and are beginning to measure the damage on an industry that generated $30.8 billion in taxable sales last year.

That figure is supposed to go up this year. The Division of Tourism predicts that 42.4 million visitors will come to Florida, up from 40.53 million last year. The record is 40.9 million visitors set in 1990.

Last year’s figures exceeded expectations despite Hurricane Andrew, which devastated much of South Florida.

″People are more forgiving in the case of natural disaster than in the area of crime,″ said Vicky Knappenberger, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Commerce.

Preliminary state figures show tourism has been slipping from last year with a 13 percent drop in March in visitors traveling by car and an 8 percent decrease in February. But those figures, which don’t account for air traffic or all auto traffic, may be misleading, tourist officials said.

″The only thing we’ve seen so far is that there has been one or two cancellations by tour operators of groups between 200 and 300 people,″ said Mayco Villafana, spokesman for the Miami Convention & Visitors’ Bureau.

But travel agent Barry White said he’s hearing ominous rumblings in the industry.

″A tour operator who does receptive tours for Germans told me he already anticipates it,″ White said. ″He has heard some German tourist operators are already trying to refocus to Orlando instead of Miami.″

Robberies of out-of-state visitors have more than doubled in South Florida since 1989 - rising from 1,165 in 1989 to 2,616 last year.

Still, tourism officials, are quick to point out that 3.2 percent of crimes in the state in 1992 were committed against non-residents, down from 3.5 percent the previous year.

″We are a relative safe city when you look at our crime statistics,″ Villafana said. ″There is a trend towards (attacks on) tourists, though. The street criminal has decided our tourist makes a nice target.″

That trend isnt new, however.

In November 1991, the London Daily Mail called Miami ″one of America’s most dangerous cities″ after a British couple was slain.

Tourist officials in Miami are combatting problems by increasing lighting in certain neighborhoods and adding new signs with international symbols directing tourists towards beaches and the airports.

Gov. Lawton Chiles and his task force on visitor safety have been pushing rental companies to exchange their telltale license plates for new generic ones. The companies are proceeding with the changes, but it will take time.

Chiles also wants to use a federal carjacking law to prosecute crimes involving rental cars.

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