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State monitors fallout from sheriff's warning

Frankie Robinson was getting her hair done in Lancaster, England, on Monday when the beauty parlor chatter turned to newspaper headlines and her plans to vacation in Florida.

"See Florida at Your Peril (says) Police Boss," read the Daily Express headline over a story on Lee County Sheriff John McDougall's advice that vacationers steer clear of Florida.

"Everybody thought we were nuts to come to Florida now," said Robinson, who nonetheless this week began her 16th annual vacation in the Sunshine State with her lawyer husband, David. "All they know about Florida is guns. We've been here before, so we don't expect to be slain."

Sheriff McDougall's comments _ made Friday to about 5-million viewers of NBC's Today show _ were prompted by a recent court decision that allows 500 felons to remain free on early prison release. His warnings have since gone global and created a big public relations problem for the state's tourism business.

The fallout comes just as Florida is recording one of its best winter tourist seasons. It's still early to gauge how much of an impact the sheriff's comments will have on the spring and summer seasons when many visitors come from the United Kingdom. A handful of cancellations have trickled in to a few Pinellas County beach hotels so far. And many hotels have been fielding calls trying to calm jittery prospective guests.

"I had one cancellation and one fellow from Glasgow I talked out of canceling," said Brenda Jones, owner of the All Suite Motel in St. Petersburg that gets 85 percent of its customers from the United Kingdom.

Some U.S. travelers want to know if the state is safe. Even two Los Angeles film crews called Tampa tourism officials for reassurances it was "safe enough" for them to film some TV commercials here.

Still, the state's PR strategists are less concerned about losing domestic visitors because Americans are more familiar with Florida. They are more concerned about Europeans who, thanks to American TV shows, films and news coverage of some past sensational crimes against tourists in Florida, regard the state as something out of the Wild West.

McDougall's story has not gotten much play in Germany. But it has been a headline-grabber in the United Kingdom, which provides Florida with about 10 percent of its tourists annually.

Officially, the state's vast tourist marketing machine is giving the McDougall story the silent treatment in hopes the whole thing will blow over. But they are closely monitoring the world press and the level of cancellations to determine whether they should get more active.

"We don't want to produce more bad publicity until we know how much damage has been done," said Lee Daniel, public relations director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We're giving this the silent approach," said Francis Purvey, marketing director of the Radisson Suite Resort in Clearwater, which gets about 15 percent of its vacationers from the United Kingdom. "If people ask about it, we tell them. But otherwise we don't mention it."

"We don't know how serious the long-term effects are going to be yet," said Robin Knight, spokeswoman for the Florida Tourist Industry Marketing Corp. in Tallahassee. The group is responding to all news queries with statistics showing crime has decreased 11 percent since 1992, noting that Florida tourism is booming and that other states are dealing with the same early release of inmates. Nobody gets the release, however, unless they ask about crime.

Tourist offices around the state are trying to shape opinions through lower profile means. In Pinellas, the tourist bureau Tuesday fired off a facsimile to 400 hotel sales crews from Sheriff Everett Rice that can be used to calm prospective vacationers alarmed by "rash statements" about Florida being a dangerous place.

"The public should have no reason to consider canceling or postponing their trip to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area," Rice said. "We know who these people are who have been released and are keeping a very close eye on them."

Meanwhile, the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association is calling out-of-town TV shows in hopes of getting them to move up scheduled remote broadcasts from Tampa on other subjects.

"We want to get some other positive images of Tampa and Florida seen on the air other than Sheriff McDougall's inappropriate and irresponsible comments," said Michelle Payer, the association's vice president of communications.