Never have so many overseas vacationers flocked to US

"It's getting out of hand. We've come to the point where we're turning down all but our most loyal customers." The speaker is not a service station operator faced with long lines of motorists wanting to buy scarce gasoline, but a wholesaler of packaged tours. He is referring to people from other countries who want to visit the United States.

In fact, so many foreigners want to come here that for the first time since the end of World War II the number of arrivals from overseas will exceed the number of Americans going abroad, according to the US Travel Service (USTS), an arm of the Commerce Department. And that does not even count Canadian and Mexican visitors, who have simply to cross the border. The total, says USTS policy and research chief Don Wynegar, should reach 21.6 million -- an 8 percent increase over 1979 traffic. Seven years ago, USTS was expecting only 3.45 million.

When the last foreign visitor for the year has left, an estimated $10 billion will have been spent in US hotels, restaurants, shops, parks, and other attractions. Taking into consideration the money those using US air carriers will have paid, the total grows to $11.9 billion. The US, Mr. Wynegar says, now ranks No. 1 in the world in tourism receipts.

In terms of sheer volume, he says, the greatest number of visitors this year will come from Europe -- 3.65 million -- a 22 percent increase over 1979. But South Americans are expected to account for the most dramatic growth -- a 30 percent increase. A 14 percent gain is projected in traffic from the Asian countries.

Much, if not most, of this surge in visitors is explained by the favorable position of certain foreign currencies against the US dollar. Two notable examples are the Japanese yen and the West German deutsch mark. USTS projections show 1.15 million Japanese visitors will come to the US this year -- a 15 percent increase over 1979. Likewise, 675,000 West Germans are expected -- 17 percent more than a year ago.

Says Angus McClure, director of news services for Trans World Airlines (TWA), "London is probably our best city [in terms of traffic to the US], but Germany looks like it's going to get very hot. Germany is really jumping, in fact."

TWA offers round-trip budget flights from Frankfurt, West Germany, to New York for as little as $395. For another $300 the traveler can buy unlimited air travel in the US on the same airline.

Many visitors are coming specifically for such unconventional activities as river rafting and dude ranching, says Wolfgang Mertels, director of Atpac Tours in New York, a Cortell Group company and a leading packager of excursions to the US from Europe and elsewhere. His firm alone is bringing 61 groups here in July and August, ranging in size from 20 to 140 people. Atpac, he says, showed a 353 percent increase in sales of packaged tours to the US between Nov. 15, 1978, and Nov. 15, 1979. He expects the figure to double again this year.

Mr. Mertels, however, stresses that not all visitors to the US are coming for relaxation and pleasure. Atpac sets up tours for numerous foreign businessmen and also works closely with foreign governments in arranging tours for what he calls "technical groups." One such group is the West German Defense Lawyers Association, which recently visited with United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim in New York and Chief Justice of the United States Warren Burger in Washington.

But those who do come here for relaxation -- at least to places like Miami, a favorite destination -- tend to stay for what seem like inordinate lengths of time to most Americans. According to Art Ellick, director of tourism research for the Miami/Dade County Tourism and Convention Department, Germans average 24. 3 nights in the area's hotels and visitors from Great Britain 19.1 nights, compared with 8.6 for domestic vacationers.

"I think you'll find Europeans tend to take fewer, but longer vacations," Mr. Ellick says. "The boss might close down his whole factory and give everybody three weeks off. A fellow from New York might fly down for a long weekend. From Europe you can't do that. Also, they [foreign visitors] tend to be more relaxed. The American tends to want to get into his vacation program quicker."

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