Florida battles tourism slump

GLOBAL economic woes and the image of violence still bedeviling the state of Florida have cut into the state's all-important tourism industry, the flywheel of the local economy.

The latest statistics from the state Department of Commerce show that the number of visitors to Florida in December, a key tourism month, dropped 7.6 percent over the same period a year ago. It was the third drop in visitation in five months.

For 1993 as a whole, Florida attracted 1.2 percent more tourists than a year ago, largely because of a robust spring. But that is still well below the 4 percent growth rate state officials had projected.

Analysts attribute the falloff to lingering recessions in Europe and Canada, two big sources of sun-seekers, and increased competition from other tourist destinations.

As Florida has languished, other vacation havens in the region -

Jamaica, the Bahamas, Mexico - have been making strong pitches for the tourist dollar, yen, and franc. Mexico, for instance, is expected to spend $15 million on advertising in the United States this year, while budget-pinched Florida has had trouble coming up with any money.

The state also faces increased competition from New Orleans, Alabama, and Mississippi, all of which have been trying to lure visitors to recently opened gambling casinos.

Certainly another factor in Florida has been concern about public safety created by the high-profile attacks on several tourists last year.

``You can't ignore the fact that we have had some image problems,'' says Vicki Knappenberger, a spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce in Tallahassee.

But there is some positive news. The number of visitors from Latin America has held strong, helping particularly south Florida. Moreover, the snowstorms that have rabbit-punched the Northeast are sending people south, escaping their snow shovels and their thermometers.

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