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Terrorism's toll on tourism

September's terrorist attacks so damaged Florida tourism that the dropoff in visitors dragged down results for the entire third quarter.

There were an estimated 16.5-million visitors to Florida during the third quarter ending in September, a decrease of 6 percent from the same time last year, Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, reported Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, the drop occurred after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which grounded airplanes for days and raised concerns about airline security. More than half of Florida's visitors come by airplane.

Tourism was essentially flat in July and August, so the drop after Sept. 11 would appear to be far greater than the 6 percent drop for the quarter indicates, said Barry Pitegoff, vice president of research for Visit Florida. Visitor estimates are not broken down by month or week.

"In the two weeks immediately following the attacks, there was very, very little U.S. air traffic at that point," said Tom Flanigan, a spokesman for Visit Florida.

A 10 percent drop in Canadian visitors for the quarter was especially surprising. Tourism officials weren't quite sure how to explain it since non-Canadian, overseas visitors dropped by only 3.5 percent compared with the third quarter last year. Canada provides the greatest number of international visitors to Florida.

One theory, according to Flanigan, is that overseas visitors from Europe and Latin America are more accustomed to traveling under tight security conditions and might not be as put off as North Americans by the sight of armed soldiers at airports.

"In Europe and Latin America, they say, "This is a terrible time, but we've had to put up with these things for years,' " Flanigan said. Other tourism experts have cited the weak Canadian dollar as dampening travel.

The current year-to-date estimate for Florida tourism through the third quarter of 2001 was just under 55-million visitors, about a 1 percent decrease from the 55.5-million visitors during the first nine months of 2000.

The true fallout on Florida tourism from the Sept. 11 attacks isn't expected to be seen until the fourth quarter, but there are other indications that getting visitors to return to Florida may be difficult.

A telephone survey for Visit Florida shows that the number of people uncomfortable with flying who are likely to cancel their vacation plans has more than doubled. In the beginning of October, the figure stood at 8 percent but grew to 17 percent by the beginning of November.

The survey also indicated that growing numbers of people find air travel inconvenient and time-consuming. When people uncomfortable with flying were asked for their reason at the beginning of October, more than 17 percent said flying was inconvenient and time-consuming. By the beginning of November, that figure was almost 26 percent.

The telephone survey involved 1,000 randomly selected people nationwide.

The weakened economy, along with increased unemployment and the volatile stock market, may have explained the increasing reluctance to travel rather than fear of terrorist attacks, Flanigan said.

"There's just a lot of uncertainty out there," Flanigan said. "Everyone has been so focused on 9-11 that it's easy to forget that we were already about to go into an economic downturn in the latter part of the summer."