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Florida Tries to Rescue Sunny Image as Violence Gets Worse : ‘We’ve never been through anything like this,’ says one tourism official. But visitors keep coming despite incidents.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With 20% of its tax revenue coming from tourism, no state has a bigger stake than Florida in a sunny image and a reputation for visitor friendliness. And with a tourist industry valued at $30 billion a year, no other state has ever been gut-punched so hard by crime and notoriety.

And it just keeps getting worse.

Police in Miami were still puzzling Tuesday over a motive for the freeway slaying two days earlier of a 40-year-old visitor from New York. As Miguel Sanchez, his cousin and his cousin’s wife drove to dinner Sunday evening, a motorist pulled alongside and fired one shot that struck Sanchez in the head.

The three visitors were not in a rental car, nor was there a robbery attempt.

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“This appears to be a random-type incident,” said Metro-Dade Police Det. Juan Del Castillo.

Just how bad is it?

After the ninth killing of a foreign visitor to Florida in 11 months, the state’s Division of Tourism last week faxed a statement, in any one of six languages, to 28,000 travel agents in North America and Europe to tell them about new safety measures.

The state also set up a toll-free telephone line to answer queries from travel agents and prospective visitors. Within a week of the most recent killing of a foreign tourist, the Sept. 14 shooting of Briton Gary Colley in northern Florida, operators received more than 1,500 calls.

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“It’s definitely damage control; that’s all it is,” said Gary Stogner, the Tourism Division’s public relations director. “We’ve never been through anything like this. It’s hell, basically.”

Most of the violence has occurred in South Florida, and Miami’s image is taking the worst pounding. A recent Gallup poll found that 80% of those surveyed think of Miami as unsafe; in a Conde Nast Traveler magazine reader survey, Miami was ranked the most unfriendly city in the world.

But the troubles are not confined to Florida’s largest city. In Tampa early Tuesday, an Illinois tourist was shot in the elbow by one of three men who accosted him and his wife as they returned to their motel room.

Also in Tampa, two men were arrested last week for the beating death of a 17-year-old student from Turkey. Mehmet Bahar, who was in Florida to study English, was followed to the home of his host family and punched and kicked to death. He reportedly cut in front of the suspects on a highway.

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In Monticello, east of Tallahassee, police still have not made an arrest in the rest-stop slaying of Colley, a 34-year-old truck driver from Yorkshire. “The investigation is continuing,” said a spokeswoman for Jefferson County Sheriff Ken Fortune.

And in West Palm Beach, a lawyer argued that the storm of bad publicity over tourist slayings meant that his client probably would be sentenced to the electric chair rather than life in prison. The crime for which Kirby Chastine was convicted: killing a tourist.

As bad as it seems for Florida tourism, however, Stogner says the damage will be controlled. Although it is too early to assess the direct effects of Colley’s murder and the slaying of a German visitor in Miami six days earlier, the number of visitors for the first part of the year is up.

Overall, tourism to Florida between January and June rose 5.3% over the same period in 1992, Stogner said, and the number of international visitors increased 20%.

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“When you have nine visitors killed out of a population of 41 million people, the percentage is unbelievably low,” says Stogner. “We’re a very violent society. But Florida doesn’t have a franchise on crime, and I think Europeans understand that.

“Your chances of being hospitalized for sunburn are better than anything else.”


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