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Florida’s Tourist Industry In ‘Damage-Control Posture’

September 5, 1992

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Florida tourism industry officials, already lamenting a slow Labor Day weekend, spent Friday in conference calls and at facsimile machines trying to cut their losses from Hurricane Andrew.

″Obviously, there’s concern statewide about the long-range effects,″ said Gary Stogner, public relations manager for the Division of Tourism, which oversees a $29 billion a year industry. His Tallahassee office had a statewide conference call Friday with nearly three dozen industry officials.

Southwest Florida tourism promoters were running national television spots with a toll-free telephone number to emphasize that they escaped major storm damage. Miami and Miami Beach tourism executives and publicists prepared videos and maps for a New York City blitz of meetings and interviews next week.

″Seeing is believing,″ explained Lisa Cole, publicist for the Fontainebleau Hilton, which reopened Friday while workers finished replacing broken windows in 21 rooms and cleaning up the lower-level shops and boutiques.

″There are a few trees missing, a few windows broken, but what people don’t realize is that the area that took the direct hit isn’t where the tourists are.″

People reading news accounts from Miami that describe damage in ″southern Florida″ may not realize that most of the destruction was south of Miami - a 45-minute drive from Miami Beach, four hours or more from Disney World, Sea World and the other major Central Florida attractions.

However, storm damage has temporarily closed some popular spots, including Miami’s Metrozoo, which has had most its animals evacuated to Busch Gardens in Tampa, and the Everglades National Park, which has been closed for several months because of storm damage.

Garrett Trent, who arrived here Thursday with his wife from Ruidoso, N.M., had the Miami Beach boardwalk behind the Fontainebleau nearly to himself.

″We hesitated when we saw all the damage,″ said Trent, who’s staying at the next-door Eden Roc. ″But we talked to the people of the hotel, and it’s not bad here.″

The Fontainebleau had 600 of its 1,200 rooms booked for this weekend. Ironically, most Miami area hotels are jammed - but mainly with hordes of journalists covering the hurricane aftermath, the thousands of people helping the relief effort and some refugees from hurricane-damaged homes.

In badly-hit Homestead, Janet Lewis said she wants to take her 12-year-old son Robert out of their home, where the wind tore off the back bedroom.

″I’ve been trying to get a motel for four days and they say they have no rooms,″ she said.

Rental car agencies also are overloaded.

However, such business is temporary and tourism officials are worried about turning things around before they lose bookings in the critical winter season that begins in October.

Within days after the hurricane hit on Aug. 24, full-page newspaper ads proclaimed: ″Florida, We’re Still Open.″

Some people questioned the taste of promoting sun and beach fun while hundreds of thousands of people were reeling from a killer hurricane, but tourism officials countered that the industry provides more than 600,000 jobs and badly needed state government tax revenues.

By fax, telex, telephone, public relations wires, computer messages and news conferences, state officials have waged a nearly non-stop battle to convince tourists that they will be safe.

″There still exists some confusion, despite our efforts,″ Stogner said. He said European tourists in particular are confused about the storm area’s location.

Tourism officials in the Keys, the island chain just south of the hurricane-hit area, say they are just now rebounding from misperceptions they were hit, and industry officials as far away as Tampa, 250 miles from Miami, were still receiving calls Friday from worried travelers.

A media saturation campaign is being planned by state officials for key winter markets.

Still, major Central Florida attractions say business has been normal, although some have pitched in on the hurricane relief effort.

Busch Gardens in Tampa has become temporary home for hundreds of animals, from koala bears to exotic birds, from storm-damaged Metrozoo in Miami.

Disney World spokesman John Dreyer said the company sent 10,000 box lunches in the first days after the storm, followed by four tractor-trailer loads of food, clothing, towels, linens and clothes provided by Disney employees and hotels.

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