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TRAVEL INSIDER : How To Play It Safe When Visiting American Cities : Tourism: It's easy to learn about crime and safety overseas, but data on domestic hot spots is sketchy.

April 25, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

City safety--inside and outside the United States--has probably never been a bigger issue for travelers than it is now.

Those traveling to foreign destinations can learn of coups and fevers from hot lines of the U.S. State Department (202-647-5225) and the federal Centers for Disease Control (404-639-2572).

But if you're wondering how safe you'll be in New York, Miami --or Los Angeles--whom do you call? The State Department doesn't monitor domestic destinations. The local visitors' bureau and chamber of commerce, like such organizations everywhere, can be expected to put a cheery spin on things. The police department isn't set up to take tourism calls. And your travel agent knows what she or he has read in the newspapers, and that's about it.

There appears to be no agency in the United States that specifically evaluates crime and safety conditions with the domestic tourist in mind. And more and more, travelers seem to be wondering about such things. The last month of national anxiety over Los Angeles is one example; Miami is another.

There and in the surrounding south Florida area, six foreign tourists have been killed since December and many others have been victimized by muggers and purse snatchers. Troubled by the prospect of a devastated tourism trade, Miami city officials are planning the removal of telltale rental-car tags. This month they installed simplified street signs to help tourists find their way and opened a new airport tourist-information booth with maps and directions in five languages.

No one can say how much such measures will calm fears, or if domestic travelers will be less troubled than foreign visitors. But as Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau senior vice president Michael Collins acknowledged recently, when tourist-related crime statistics begin to stack up, "It raises questions, whether you're from Berlin or (from) Hoboken."

In situations such as Miami's, said Emily Porter, spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents, "We encourage our travel agent members to keep up with the news and disclose any information their clients will need about a particular destination. . . . But ultimately it's a personal decision. . . . The best thing to do, I guess, is to read the news and call friends if you have friends in the area. Because even the media can distort information."

(Collins agreed quickly with that. When I called last week, he was stewing over the Time magazine cover story of April 19: "Los Angeles: Is the City of Angels Going to Hell?")

Here's the rub. Though all sides agree that travelers are asking more questions these days, several tourism officials maintain that, since virtually every city's landscape is widely varied and constantly changing, any effort to assess domestic risks to tourists is likely to be seriously flawed. An imperfect survey portraying itself as an objective measure, said Collins, might be "enormously destructive."

As a sophisticated traveler, Collins asserted, you recognize the general risks of a place and "govern yourself accordingly."

Still, a tourist wonders.

"As a traveler, I would like to know these things," wrote a Santa Monica reader in a recent letter to this section. (When I called her, she requested anonymity.) "Of course, word gets around about different destinations, but to have the information presented in a formal way would be very helpful, I think."

Japan's Foreign Ministry, counterpart to the U.S. State Department, provides that country's travelers with warnings and updates about foreign destinations, including the U.S. But when I called Takashi Matsumura, the Japanese consul in Los Angeles, on April 13, he noted that the only Foreign Ministry update for any U.S. destination was a "caution" advising Los Angeles visitors of tension over the then-pending verdict in the Rodney King civil-rights trial.

The American Society of Travel Agents, having noted "growing concern about personal safety while traveling," has responded with new information. But it's far more general than specific: The group is updating its Traveling Safely brochure and will publish a new version next month. (Copies should be available from the group's roughly-12,000 member agents nationwide.) As with most such lists, many of the suggestions are matters of common sense. But they bear repeating. Too many travelers behave more recklessly on the road than they do at home. A sampling:

* If you will be renting a car, get maps in advance and clearly write out the directions from the airport to your hotel. If you need to stop for directions, go to well-lit public areas. Keep the phone numbers of your destination with you.

* Lock your car doors while driving. Do not pick up strangers or stop for people you don't know. Police cars will have blue and red lights; do not stop for cars flashing their high-beams. Be observant before entering parking lots. When returning to your hotel at night, use the main entrance.

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