- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) After Hurricane Frances left her cooped up in a hotel room with her two daughters for days, Jackie Pender made up her mind.

“I’m never coming back,” said the 42-year-old utility company worker from New York as she spent her last day in Orlando at Universal Studios. “The hurricanes — I can’t take it.”

Tourism officials in Florida are worried that Mrs. Pender’s opinion could spread as fast as images of hurricane shelters and clogged highways.

In years past, hurricanes — even Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — had little noticeable effect on the state’s biggest industry. But Florida hasn’t experienced a one-two punch in decades like it got in the past month from Hurricanes Charley and Frances. The two storms shut down the state’s major theme parks for an unprecedented three days, caused massive beachside evacuations along the Atlantic coast and damaged snowbird homes in southwest Florida.

Another hurricane, Ivan, is stirring in the Atlantic and could threaten Florida, which relies on images of sun-baked beaches and palm trees gently swaying in the breeze — not being blown over by hurricane-force winds — to support its $50 billion tourism industry.

“Anything that reflects negatively on a destination is a matter of concern,” said Tom Flanigan, a spokesman for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency.

In an effort to boost business for Labor Day weekend, Visit Florida ran two ads worth $84,000 in USA Today after Hurricane Charley, telling readers the hurricane had only affected a small portion of the state and the rest of Florida was open for tourists. A third ad was supposed to run last Friday, but it was pulled as Frances neared the state.

Visit Florida has a $2 million contingency fund to promote the state’s tourism image, but the agency may wait until after Hurricane Ivan passes and after hurricane damage is out of the headlines.

“Of course we need to show a rehabilitated image to the rest of the country,” said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau and a Visit Florida board member. “But we would be advertising on the same pages as photos of the hurricane damage if we do it too soon.”

Florida tourism officials also were worried about how the hurricanes were being perceived by international tourists.

Virgin Holidays Ltd., a British tour operator, was allowing Florida-bound customers to make changes to their travel plans free of charge because of expected disruptions from Hurricane Frances.

Danielle Courtenay, a spokeswoman for the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said staff members in the bureau’s international offices in Japan, Belgium, Germany and England were monitoring hurricane coverage abroad.

Frances only registered as a blip in Japan, which is dealing with a typhoon, and was given minimum coverage in Germany, where attention has been focused on the Russian school seizure, Miss Courtenay said.

“The initial news reports are fairly favorable,” Miss Courtenay said. “The U.K. has a little more hurricane coverage because so many U.K. folks come to Florida.”

Eileen Penny was one of those folks. The Liverpool, England, grandmother arrived in Orlando with her husband, six grandchildren, three daughters and two sons-in-law last week. But she wasn’t sure whether she would return to Florida — at least not during hurricane season.

“It was just terrible,” Mrs. Penny said.

“The hotel ran out of food. The children went to bed without food. Water soaked the carpet in our hotel room.”

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