Fearful Foreign Tourists Shy Away From Violent U.S.

In the country that seduced the world with shoot-'em-up images of Rambo and Miami Vice, real violence in U.S. cities is scaring off foreign visitors in unprecedented numbers and eroding the nation's $74 billion-a-year international tourism business.

Interviews with more than 40 foreign journalists and world tour operators gathered in Miami Beach for a travel conference last week indicated that violence in the United States - real and perceived - is evolving into the primary reason keeping foreign visitors from American shores.

While South Florida is still thought of as a major trouble spot, experts say the issue of tourist safety is increasingly being viewed as a nationwide problem. Indeed, many European and Asian travel experts now view the United States as more dangerous than Kenya, Turkey or Egypt.

"We have crime in Japan - people snatch purses and pick pockets - and we understand that those things happen in every major city," said Naoto Katsumata, deputy general manager for Tokyo-based Kinki Nippon Tourist Co. "The difference is that in America, the visitors get killed. We don't understand the constant use of guns. That is what scares us the most."

Katsumata's company brings 100,000 Japanese to the U.S. each year. Last year, the company saw a 40 percent decrease in visitors to Los Angeles, its most popular destination, because of concern about crime, Katsumata said.

Those international fears are adding up: In 1993, the number of foreign visitors to the United States dropped 3.7 percent, the first decline since 1985. The U.S. share of the world tourism market also slipped six-tenths of a percentage point to 9.2 percent.

That market share will continue to decline for at least the next two years, according to statistics released last week by the U.S. Travel & Tourism Administration.

Without question, other factors contributed to the 1993 nationwide drop. Recessions in Europe and Japan, as well as the increasing strength of the dollar against some currencies, made the United States a less affordable destination for foreigners.

But the tour operators, travel agents and journalists in Miami Beach for Discover America International Pow Wow, the largest convention in world tourism, say the overwhelming reason is the growing international fear of visiting the land of the Terminator.

They point to the mounting incidents of tourist crime over the past year, two of them as recent as this month: the execution-style murder of a German tourist on a highway in Idyllwild, Calif., and the hijacking of a Tokyo tourist-industry official busload of Norwegian tourists at Miami International Airport.

Other incidents in the past year included tourist murders in Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and New Orleans.

"People in the U.K. used to see coming to America as the great dream vacation," said Ray Watson, a British journalist based in Surrey. "Now, they are scared stiff. They're afraid they're going to fly over here, get into a rental car and get shot."

Latin Americans, however, remain virtually unaffected and are buoying foreign travel to communities such as South Florida.

"The same sort of thing goes on in Mexico City all the time," said Conchita Schiaffino, travel writer for El Universal, a Mexican daily with a circulation of 180,000. "We are used to it. The United States holds no fear for us."

Greg Farmer, U.S. undersecretary of commerce for travel and tourism, said he considered the perception of violence in the U.S. to be one of the top problems facing the country's foreign-tourism industry.

Given these problems, Farmer, the former Florida commerce secretary, is proposing a number of measures. First, he is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to begin compiling statistics on acts of violence against foreign tourists. He is also proposing that other cities study the policies implemented by Dade County, such as a special "tourist police" division patrolling the Miami airport region, in an effort to cut down on nationwide incidents of tourist crime.

Local and U.S. officials blame shrill foreign media reports about local crime incidents for the perception of violence in the U.S. But journalists and foreign tour operators counter by saying the United States glorifies crime in Hollywood movies and television, then exports them. Foreign journalists also say their reports would be more tempered if community leaders were more forthcoming about admitting problems.

For instance, several journalists cited a press conference held Tuesday by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau at Pow Wow. The panelists, including bureau president Merrett Stierheim, Metro Commissioner Arthur Teele and Miami Mayor Steve Clark, often danced around questions about the city's crime problem, instead preaching to journalists about the city's need for positive news coverage.

Several journalists stormed out of the conference in disgust. "Miami had done so many positive things to improve safety for visitors, yet instead of clearly presenting their side of the story, they avoided the issue when they were asked about it," said Sylvia Bohlender, a reporter for The Tourism Report in Hessen, Germany. "It was the worst possible thing they could have done. All it does is perpetuate the impression that there's something to hide."