1. Archive

Orlando tourism officials fight portrayal as war zone

After British newspapers painted Orlando as a war zone of gun-toting bandits, Central Florida's tourism industry is working both sides of the Atlantic to convince travelers the area is safe.

British tabloids seized on two crimes this month that left a British tourist dead and an Ohio man wounded.

London's Daily Mail called Florida a "State of Terror," and a front-page headline in the Sun blared "Fiancee Sees Robber Kill Disney Brit."

A report the next day offered tips for surviving a holiday in the "Florida jungle."

Keith Thompson of England was shot to death Oct. 3 at a motel on South Orange Blossom Trail when he refused to give his wallet to a robber.

Samual Darmahkasih of Ohio was shot and wounded the following day as he and his brother were robbed at gunpoint in Kissimmee.

A British couple walking in front of a restaurant near Lake Buena Vista were robbed at gunpoint Oct. 6.

Sheriff's offices in Orange and Osceola counties are investigating the crimes, with no arrests yet.

Overseas coverage of the incidents had faded by late last week, and there were no reports of trips canceled because of the crimes.

But tourism industry members in Orlando, where about 1-million British tourists visit annually, hope the headlines don't leave a lasting impression.

"You worry about the British tabloid press," said Linda Chapin, chairwoman of the Orlando-Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The reality is we are a family oriented, safe and healthy community," said Linda Chapin, chairwoman of the Orlando-Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"We would be horrified to have anything impair that perception," Chapin said.

Chapin prepared a media statement expressing condolences to the slain tourist's family.

The convention bureau offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to suspects in the slaying.

"We want everyone to know that this sort of criminal activity won't be tolerated," said the bureau's executive director, Bill Peeper.

The Kissimmee-St. Cloud Convention & Visitors' Bureau also organized a reward, for suspects in the Darmahkasih shooting.

The Central Florida Hotel-Motel Association considered recommending that its members step up security. Precautions currently range from full-time security directors at large establishments to basic employee training at smaller ones.

With Hurricane Andrew in August and deadly tornadoes this month, said state Division of Tourism spokesman Gary Stogner, "There have been a series of very challenging public relations problems."

The British newspapers made much of Thompson's death partly because crimes involving handguns are unusual in England, Stogner said.

The Sun told readers that "muggers in the states are usually armed with a gun or knife. Often they are high on crack or heroin and cannot be reasoned with."