A few weeks ago, we were faced with a situation that any visitor destination wants to avoid at all costs -- crime against tourists.
Fortunately, in the two cases of the victimized Swedish tourists and the injured Italian tourist, prompt intervention by local police authorities and assistance provided by the respective local consulates, the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (ConVis), the Crime Victims Fund, and other community groups mitigated what could have been a tragic situation for all concerned.
We have been lucky here in San Diego, which remains one of the safest metropolitan areas in the nation. There's no question safety translates into visitor volume. For example, whenever we query travelers and ask what they are looking for when they select a visitor destination, the issue of safety consistently turns up as one of the top prerequisites for many potential travelers.
The importance of safety as it relates to the visitor industry cannot be underestimated. Ten years ago, tourism in Florida suffered a tremendous blow after a series of visitor-related homicides made international headlines. Only after several years -- and billions of dollars in lost visitor spending -- did Florida begin to gain back its reputation as an international visitor playground.
The reality is that what happened in Florida can happen at anytime and anywhere, including San Diego. Nobody can absolutely guarantee the safety of a visitor to any major city. All "big" cities have "big" city challenges, and that includes crime.
For this reason, travelers visiting any major city should be urged to exercise common sense and be aware of placing themselves in situations that make them prone to victimization. In a proactive approach to the issue of visitor safety, ConVis began publication of The Visitor Safety Tips brochure, a product of a collaborative effort between San Diego visitor industry interests and local law enforcement, in 1993.
The colorful and easy-to-read brochure offers good sense tips for travelers to San Diego, or to any other destination, for that matter. These include safety tips while on the road, sightseeing and taking public transit; security tips for hotel/motels and vehicles; parking and curbside regulations; and specific safety tips for conventioneers and children. The brochure also includes a multi-lingual guide to 911 emergency numbers, county and downtown area maps, and a list of telephone numbers for general information on San Diego.
The brochure is available to visitors and San Diegans alike at a wide variety of locations and visitor information centers throughout the region and can also be accessed and printed on-line as part of a link from the ConVis main Web site at www.sandiego.org/safety.idc.
Several other organizations work within the San Diego community to help the traveler in need. The Travelers Aid Society of San Diego offers a variety of services to the visiting and local public -- from a simple request for directions to more complex and sometimes life-threatening, health-related assistance. The Traveler's Aid core of volunteers -- 250 strong -- provide visitor assistance at the airport, the Santa Fe train station and the cruise ship terminal whenever a ship is in port. This past year, the non-profit organization's volunteers assisted more than 530,000 visitors.
Another valuable resource for San Diego's visitors is The Crime Victim's Fund, a social service organization that provides emergency financial assistance to victims of crime. The fund was established to address the immediate needs of crime victims in San Diego County, and to provide short-term relief for such necessities as food, housing, utilities, medical expenses, prescription medication costs, burial fees and others.
Since its inception 20 years ago, The Crime Victim's Fund has come to the aid of more than 7,500 crime victims in San Diego County, and disbursed over $1,000,000 in financial aid. Each year they assist 25-30 visitors to San Diego, the majority of which have been victims of theft.
The people assisted have been referred by the Victim/Witness Program of the District Attorney's Office, Traveler's Aid Society or other local agencies. Once referred, the victim's needs are assessed and payment is made directly to a vendor (such as a landlord, a utility company, a supermarket, a doctor's office, etc.). The fund disburses approximately $100,000 annually through the Emergency Victim Assistance Program.
When crisis strikes, foreign visitors are encouraged to contact their Consulate, which offers a variety of services including notifying family, helping provide alternative travel plans and making sure the best medical care possible is provided. Additionally, hospital staff have access to a translator's service, so doctors and nurses can communicate with the patient and family members if they do not speak English. In many cases ethnically affiliated local service organizations will often step in to assist the foreign visitor. In the Italian tourist's case, the UNICO Italian American Club of San Diego provided financial aid and personal assistance to help ease the visitor's return to Italy.
We don't like to think that our visitors will ever be the victims of crime, but when the unexpected does happen, we can rely on our excellent network of support organizations to provide immediate assistance to the traveler.
Reinders is president and CEO of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau.