MIAMI — PATROLLING in his newly painted green and white squad car, police officer Larry Buck spots two people pouring over a street map in a car near the Alamo car rental company at Miami International Airport.
``Those are tourists,'' Sergeant Buck tells a reporter, pulling up beside them.
``Welcome to Miami. How can I help you?'' he asks, shaking the hand of the driver, Emil Beyruti. Mr. Beyruti and his female companion are tourists from Brazil. They were having a hard time finding their way out of the maze of streets where the car rental company is located.
Sergeant Buck gives them directions, then escorts them to the highway. The couple, beaming with smiles, wave at the policeman and head into the traffic.
Buck is a member of a new police unit called Tourist Oriented Police created by Dade County to specifically protect tourists from falling victim to robbers.
From October 1992 to December last year, nine foreign tourists and one American were murdered by robbers in Florida. Eight of them were killed in Miami alone.
The new police unit patrols around the clock a one-mile-square area near the airport where car-rental companies, warehouses, and hotels are concentrated.
``That was the area criminal elements were following the tourists from,'' Buck says. Members of this unit wear white armbands with blue and green strips. Their cars bear international police insignia. They were selected for their public-relations skills and specially trained to work with tourists. They have cellular phones to call up interpreters for visitors who speak neither English nor Spanish.
The unit has been working for the past two months but was officially inaugurated last Monday. During its initial 30 days, robberies went down in the triangle by 63 percent and vehicle burglaries were reduced by 74 percent, says John Ford, airport police district commander. Hardly an atrocious incident against a foreign tourist has been reported in Miami so far this year.
Worldwide outcry against the murders threatened Florida's $31 billion tourist industry. Visitors to the state - which claims to be the world's most sought-after vacation destination - started heading elsewhere. Last December (the latest figures available) the number visitors went down 7.6 percent compared with the year before.
International tour operators who usually book European vacationers reported a 40 percent drop in advanced bookings to south Florida. Dade County was better off than most places in the state as the slack from Europeans was taken up by visitors from Latin America, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. The state and local governments are trying hard to shake the negative image and keep visitors coming. Car rental companies were told to replace their special license plates with tags similar to the ones used by the general populace. They were also barred from putting stickers on their cars that might identify them as rental.
Here in Miami, the county reworked the streets signs to make it easier for visitors to get to the beaches from the airport. The county is expected to pass an ordinance that will levy penalties on car-rental companies that fail to provide street maps to customers. About 94 percent of tourists to Miami arrive by air. To make them aware of the tourist police before the arrive here, the county has made available to airlines a five-minute video telling passengers about new services available to them from police officers.