|By Henry Pierson Curtis, Christopher Boyd
and April Hunt, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional
May 16, 2007 - The rape of a German tourist during one of two holdups Monday night on International Drive demonstrated again how easily crime can threaten Central Florida's economy.
By dawn Tuesday, news of the attacks spread across the Internet and local news channels.
"It's everybody's breadbasket, and we know every story involving a tourist is going to hit the [news] wire," said Orange County sheriff's spokesman Capt. Mark Strobridge. "We're always a crime or two away from having a catastrophic economic impact."
The rape happened about 10:30 p.m. on north International Drive when a German couple staying at a Howard Johnson's motel left their door propped open while watching television, according to police reports.
Two robbers with a sawed-off shotgun forced the man onto the floor and threw a blanket over his head. One of them raped the woman and beat her face and head with the weapon after ordering her to empty the room safe.
The region's tourist industry spent Tuesday waiting to see how the European media plays the attacks. The Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau responded by contacting its offices in Germany to monitor the response there.
By day's end, a spokesman said the visitors bureau hadn't received any inquiries about the crimes.
But Abe Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management, said the damage from a single violent act can be significant.
"In the past, there has been a huge impact on tourism," Pizam said. "These things should never be taken lightly. When these kinds of things happen against international tourists, they are broadly reported overseas."
In 1993, the killings of 10 foreign tourists devastated Florida's then-$31 billion tourism industry. Within a year, vacationers from overseas dropped 12 percent.
The state responded with multiple measures, posting armed security guards at highway rest stops and changing license plates to prevent easy identification of tourists.
Although a repeat of that scope of violence might chase visitors away from Orlando, crime remains low in the region's tourism centers.
At Walt Disney World -- with an estimated 48 million visitors last year -- there were four robberies, 18 aggravated assaults and no murders, according to the Sheriff's Office.
More crimes than that are reported on International Drive but remain well below other parts of Orange County.
"I don't think there is a particular problem," said Maria Triscari, executive director of the International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce. "We work very closely with crime-prevention programs, and we work very closely with both law-enforcement agencies."
Yet at least one hotelier doesn't think enough is being done to protect his guests.
International Drive is a single street with multiple personalities.
South of Sand Lake Road, and particularly near the Orange County Convention Center, it attracts the affluent with $300 hotel rooms and fine restaurants.
On the north end, where the crimes occurred Monday, $3 T-shirts and fast-food restaurants meet the needs of budget travelers.
Harris Rosen, who owns seven hotels, met with Orlando police Chief Mike McCoy several weeks ago to say he wanted the Sheriff's Office to take over law enforcement on the entire tourist strip, according to Rosen's lawyer, Ted Edwards.
Rosen owns two hotels on North International Drive, the area patrolled by Orlando police, and three on the south side patrolled by deputies. His other properties are not on I-Drive.
McCoy was not available Tuesday, but Deputy Chief Pete Gauntlett said the department continues to aggressively patrol and investigate crime on International Drive.
"No matter how safe an area may be, it's not a good practice to prop open your door," Gauntlett said, noting that motel robberies through the years frequently involved foreign visitors who preferred fresh air to air conditioning.
"They're crimes of opportunity," Gauntlett said.
The manager of the Howard Johnson at 6603 International Drive, where the German tourists were attacked and robbed, did not want to be interviewed.
A group of English tourists sitting nearby at The Lucky Leprechaun Irish Pub were surprised to learn of the attack.
"I've always thought Orlando was a safe area," said Stuart Law, one of 12 golfers from London visiting to play area courses.
The second holdup Monday happened about 11 p.m. at Suburban Extended Stay hotel, 5615 Major Blvd., reports show.
The victim, a man cooking dinner in his room who also left his door propped open, was rushed by two men similar in description to the ones who attacked the German couple, police said.
"The sad part is, when you go on vacation, the last thing you think is going to happen is you'll be the victim of a heinous crime," Orlando police Sgt. Barbara Jones said.
Henry Pierson Curtis can be reached at 407-420-5257 or email@example.com. Christopher Boyd can be reached at 407-420-5723 or firstname.lastname@example.org. April Hunt can be reached at 407-420-6269 or email@example.com.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
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