Dollar's strength, Britain's charms signal record year for visitors from America

THE Americans are coming. They are coming, and coming to Britain -- and then coming back for more.

``It's absolutely wonderful!'' says Edward Gray, manager of the Coburg Hotel, overlooking London's Kensington Gardens.

Bookings are ``incredibly good,'' adds John Lewis, who has just added six new, international-standard bedrooms to his 14th-century George Inn in the pretty Somerset village of Nunney, set in a wooded fold of the Mendip Hills.

``They're coming a bit earlier this year -- and they went on longer last year, too -- well into October . . . ,'' says Jack Archer of the Tourist Information Center at Manchester's Piccadilly.

``I don't know how we're going to cope, really!''says Maureen Davis of Reeves & Sons, a shop specializing in English china and crystal at Rochester, Kent.

Last year's wave of Americans to Britain broke all records. But the total of this year's American visitors to these shores in the first two months -- the thinnest part of the season -- was an increase of 30 percent over the same time last year. ``If this rate continues,'' claims Duncan Bluck, chairman of the British Tourist Authority, ``we shall welcome some 3.5 million North American visitors alone in 1985.''

The strong dollar takes much of the credit. But the British travel network has made hay while the sun shone by vigorous marketing in the United States and Canada.

Bob Kass, of the Scottish Highlands and Islands Development Board in Inverness, calls the increase in visitors from America ``truly tangible'' and ``not just a fluctuation.''

Mike Weaver of the West Country Tourist Board boasts that, in his part of Britain, they ``are turning what has long been good business into terrific business.''

British Airways spokesman David Snelling says the past six weeks have seen traffic figures from North America increase at exactly twice the rate they have for the airline at large. ``There is no area in our network which shows a bigger figure.''

Such buoyancy has encouraged the airline to open three new routes to London -- from Pittsburgh and from Tampa and Orlando, Fla. -- and to reopen scheduled flights from New York to Manchester, previously suspended.

Statistics are not the only indication. Britons simply can't help noticing. Go for dinner (as we did a few nights ago) to the Albany Hotel in Glasgow, and it is an American couple dining at the next table. Just as one leaves, a party of Americans surges into the dining room for the second sitting.

Take one of British Rail's inter-city services (as I did recently to York), and a group of American travelers around the next table are ebulliently discussing the exchange rate as it compares with their previous visits to Britain.

Go to Hampton Court (one of Henry VIII's palaces), and Americans are admiring the ancient brickwork, the hammer-beam roof, the splendid courtyards. Palace guide Marie Everett comments, ``Oh, yes, there'll be at least one American on every tour of the palace I give.''

Queue up at the popular Auntie's Tearoom in Cambridge, and when you sit down for cakes and sandwiches you might well find (as we did) that you are sharing a table with an immaculately dressed woman from Alabama, who says she is here for two weeks to study Shakespeare. At the next table, four young Americans, just arrived in the country the day before, are already high on British history, culture, and itineraries. Suddenly one of them leans across to address our Shakespearean scholar excitedly. ``Ma'am,'' she exclaims, ``did I hear you say you were from Alabama? I'm from Alabama!''

At least two other things, apart from the dollar's strength, are cited to explain the popularity of Britain with American tourists. Britain is ``heritage'' for many Americans. The security of a common language is also an attraction.

Most observers notice new trends in the approach of Americans to travel in Britain. Many more are striking out on their own. The ``milk run'' of habitual destinations, the London-Oxford-Stratford-Edinburgh route, for instance, or, in the West Country, places like Bath, Stonehenge, Salisbury, and Longleat, are still immensely popular. But in the last two years the north of England -- Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Lake District -- have welcomed increasing numbers.

In historic Chester, the tourist information center had to move to larger premises last summer because the crowds were so great. In the Scottish Highlands and islands, American tourists -- young ones with backpacks, older ones in cars -- are finding their way into the remotest, farthest-flung parts. One hotelier remarked that they are often equipped with itineraries the natives would envy.

Mr. Gray of the Coburg Hotel in London points out: ``A lot of Americans are now coming back for the second and third time. We are getting people into the hotel who were with us five, 10 years ago and just can't resist the temptation. And instead of going on the old `milk run,' they are definitely being more venturesome.''

Terry Charles of Hamilton Motors, a privately run car rental firm in the capital, says his company has invested in an increased number of automatic shifts this year. Even other rental firms are asking for them when they run short. It is a sure sign that more Americans are renting cars to tour Britain.

Mike Weaver, in his largely rural area, is enthusiastic about this trend: West Country proprietors of country hotels and even of farmhouse accommodation are telling him they are ``seeing more Americans.'' He particularly welcomes such ``returners'' and ``non-package tourists.'' The flood of visitors is resulting, in many parts of Britain, in an upgrading of accommodations, so that there is less need now, he maintains, to have ``suspicion about the plumbing.'' Central heating, in-suite bathrooms, double-glazing, and good food are becoming standard in many British hotels, even off the beaten track.

At the George Inn in Nunney, John Lewis and his wife, Dorothy, run a quiet, out-of-the-way establishment that has clearly benefited in just this way. His six new bedrooms are an investment already paying off, though the paint is barely dry. Virtually all his American guests come by car, and many (even though they have only stayed overnight on the first visit) are returning.

``Guests we had a week ago, who had been here last year, actually phoned from California to make their booking,'' he said with some awe.

Sometimes in summer, Morris men come and dance just outside the George. A guest visiting from Darien, Conn., on such an occasion admired their traditional antics for a while, then turned to Lewis and pronounced: ``Landlord, your food is exemplary. But your floor show is just way out!''

It's just the kind of compliment the British tourist industry, as a whole, is only too happy to receive from the welcome hordes of American visitors.

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