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Dutch tourist travels in style after paying $472 for cab trip


Since he was dropped off at the Laurel Econo-Lodge by a New York taxi on June 11, Sasa Nikolic has been given the red carpet treatment normally reserved for dignitaries.

The 24-year-old picture frame maker from the Netherlands, who came to the United States for a vacation June 8, paid $472 to the New York cabdriver -- and has become a symbol for politicians and a tourist industry eager to polish America's image as a tourist spot.

New York cab regulators say that Mr. Nikolic apparently was charged the proper fare for a New York-to-Laurel trip, under that city's official rate book.

Still, plenty of people see Mr. Nikolic as a tourist fleeced by a greedy New York cabbie. They want to sweep away that image.

Since July 15, when a Washington television station aired a story about Mr. Nikolic's experience, he has received, among other gifts:

* Free airfare to California and Florida.

* Chauffeured limousines in Maryland and Florida.

* A trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., along with a cellular phone and unlimited long distance calls, compliments of Disney.

* More than $300 in cash.

* Rooms at two major hotel chains in Florida and at the Econo-Lodge in Laurel.

His itinerary this past week has included free VIP tours of Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, Epcot, Sea World, Cyprus Gardens, Wet & Wild, and other Florida theme parks.

And when he gets back to Maryland sometime next week, he will get tours of Washington and Baltimore, arranged by Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.

"You bet I'm overwhelmed," said Mr. Nikolic earlier this week, taking a break from a whirlwind day during which he was escorted by limousine to Orlando City Hall and the Universal Studios theme park. "It all looks just like I see on the TV. . . . I love it."

New York cab officials are no less surprised by the response.

"Only in America could this happen," said a flabbergasted Eugene Rodriguez, public affairs officer for the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission.

He noted that cabdrivers can take passengers outside of the New York area at their request as long as a fare is negotiated in advance, based on the commission's rate book, or the rate of $2.50 per mile.

"D.C. is not that unusual of a trip. A lot of people prefer the personal service of a car and driver. It's a premium service, when you think about it, and it costs a substantial sum," he said.

What really occurred between the cabdriver and Mr. Nikolic remains murky. So far, neither Howard County police nor the New York taxi commission has determined that he was treated improperly.

The cabdriver can't be located because Mr. Nikolic says he didn't take down his name, taxi identification number, or the car tag number. Two managers of the Laurel Econo-Lodge have said only that they recall the taxi was a Yellow Cab with New York license plates.

Yellow Cab, meanwhile, says it has 11,700 cabs in New York. Finding the driver without a name or taxi number will be "impossible," said a Eugene Furman, manager of the Yellow Cab Co. in New York.

"I'll tell you one thing," said the manager. "If this is how they treat you in Washington, I'm taking a cab there tomorrow. I could use a free trip to Florida myself."

Mr. Nikolic, who came to the United States with $1,000 for a monthlong stay, says his encounter with the taxi driver began when he hired the cabbie for sight-seeing in New York on June 10. The tour lasted eight hours, he says, and cost $272.

The next day, Mr. Nikolic found the same cabdriver and said he would like to go to Washington. The cabbie, he said, told him that "there was not much difference in fare between a cab and a bus, but a cab was much faster."

(The regular Trailways one-way fare from New York City to Washington is $25.95.)

Mr. Nikolic says the two never specifically talked about a fare for the 203-mile trip. The cabbie dropped him off at the Laurel motel and charged him $472 -- leaving him with $78 of his vacation money.

At that point, he met A. B. Miller, who lives at the motel. Mr. Miller called WRC-TV in Washington, which aired a story.

That's when the flood of gifts started, solicited by Mr. Miller and prodded along by stories about Mr. Nikolic in the Washington Post and the Orlando Sentinel.

"We just assumed if it was on the television it was true," said Debbie Thomas, a sales manager at United Airlines Washington office who handled a customer's request that Mr. Nikolic be given free airfare to Florida.

On Sunday, Mr. Nikolic flew to Orlando with Mr. Miller, compliments of United. The coach-class tickets would have cost between $700 and $800 each, Ms. Thomas said.

Joe Hopkins, media relations manager for United Airlines in Chicago, said United officials saw the situation as "very unusual."

"The U.S.'s reputation as a tourist destination has been injured by some of the bad things that have happened to foreign tourists and students lately. We saw this as an opportunity to change his and other people's idea of how Americans treat tourists."

In Orlando, where tourism is the top industry, drawing 13 million people annually, the Dutchman is seen as an opportunity to overcome the state's battered image with foreigners. Last year, nine foreign tourists were murdered in Florida.

"We would like to wipe out any images people still have of the tourist incidents that happened last year," said Randall James, chief of staff for Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood.

Mr. Nikolic is scheduled to visit the governor's mansion in Tallahassee next week. He has also been a guest at a Hulk Hogan party and is scheduled to meet Michael Jordan at a minor league baseball game on Tuesday.

Mr. Miller, meanwhile, continues to work the phones on behalf of the Dutch visitor.

"I'm not trying to scam anybody. I just thought it would be outrageous for him to go home thinking this was how Americans treat guests," he said. "Is this the most unbelievable thing you ever heard of or what?"

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