International Tourists Share Common Perceptions of the US

Whether pursuing the American dream or a shopping spree, visitors find helpfulness and hassles on tour

Irina Golir stands in front of a map in a Boston subway station trying to make sense of the multicolored lines tracing the trains' routes. Turning from the map, she stops two women and asks in a Spanish accent for directions.

This Argentine visitor is just one of millions of foreigners who travel to the United States each year. In 1994, over 45 million tourists came to America, generating $60 billion in revenue, up from $17 billion brought in by 27 million visitors 10 years earlier. Though their reasons for chosing the US can be as diverse as their respective cultures, they also share some common perceptions of this country.

For Ms. Golir, who is from Santa Fe, Argentina, visiting this country is a dream come true. "I always wanted to know the American way of life," she says.

Carl Bromley from Portsmouth, England, has long had the same goal. The British graduate student's interest in the US began when he was a child and read many American comic strips and watched cartoons.

The American 'film set'

When he finally arrived on US soil, he says, he had a feeling of instant familiarity with the landmarks. Mr. Bromley describes the experience as "the shock of seeing something you've always seen, but experiencing it firsthand." His visit to the US was like stepping "onto a film set."

For him, the "film set" of America has its roots in Los Angeles: "Los Angeles is the dream factory where everything is produced," he says. Recalling his visit to Hollywood, he says, "The feeling was overwhelming. I had to consume all these images."

Bromley is not alone in wanting to experience tinsel world. Nestor D'Angelo from Rosario, Argentina, says Hollywood's portrayal of the American dream, in part, draws some Argentines to the US. "A lot of people come to the US every year looking to ... [experience] the American dream ... and the films and a good lifestyle," says Mr. D'Angelo.

Yet the American travel experience also involves a few unexpected frustrations. Among the annoyances for Bromley are figuring out how to use pay phones and the New York bus service, which he describes as confusing.

For other tourists, misconceptions about the distance between major cities causes problems in planning.

There is often the perception, for example, that Los Angeles and San Francisco are an hour apart, explains Mary Thompson of the San Francisco Visitor Information Center (SFVIC). In fact, it's about a seven-hour drive.

Public transit hassles

Simply getting around within the United States can be a challenge for many tourists because of the lack of sufficient public transportation - both within certain cities and to areas outside cities such as national parks that are difficult to reach without a car.

Although Los Angeles ranks as the second most popular city visited by overseas tourists, some are now choosing not to go there because of the transportation hassles.

"The consensus of opinion among a whole mix of people is that you are wasting your time [in visiting Los Angeles] because public transportation makes it very difficult," says traveler Liam Murphy, a retiree from Glasgow, Scotland. "It's not a place you can freely travel in like Boston or San Francisco."

Along with public transportation, safety is a key issue among international visitors. This has been a growing concern in the wake of a series of violent incidents against tourists in Florida. But others seem less worried about the dangers.

Helmut and Helga Herzog, traveling from Ulm, Germany, say they "always felt safe" during their two-week visit on the East Coast. Mr. Herzog says, however, "My wife was a little afraid in Manhattan, [so] we avoided in the evening passing strange quarters."

For the most part, Mr. Murphy felt safe during his travels except for an experience in New Orleans. One evening, the native of Scotland recalls, he felt extremely uncomfortable when he went for a walk at 7 p.m. and found no one else outside on the streets.

He said it was as if everyone, including the police, had retreated inside. When Murphy returned to his hotel, he was told that it "was very silly" to go out alone.

Some tourists have other unexpected concerns. Bromley, for example, is worried about unanticipated expenses. The British graduate student wonders about health-care costs if he were to get into an accident in the US. Health care in the US, he says, is far more costly than in England.

A feeling of friendliness

Despite safety concerns, a number of tourists say Americans readily roll out the welcome mat.

Golir says she aways thought of large cities in the US as dangerous, where "nobody cares what happens to you." The Argentine, who is visiting Boston for a month, says she is finding the opposite. "The people are very friendly and answer everything and help you if you need help."

The Herzogs also notice the warmth of Americans. Mr. Herzog says the kindness and "gentleness" of the people of this country, and particularly the friendliness of shop workers, are unique to the US.

Bromley, however, challenges the sincerity of Americans' friendliness. He says the store employees seem to be "overbearingly nice." Their eagerness to help appears "superficial" to the British citizen accustomed to the reserved nature of England's store workers.

For Murphy, a lack of friendliness and helpfulness was more frustrating than overeagerness to help. He says his visit to Atlanta was not as enjoyable, in part, because of the lack of help from one of the tourist information offices. At this office, he explains, every information pamphlet was behind the information desk rather than in easy reach.

The employees of the tourist information office, he says, "seemed to be impatient with an ordinary guy asking questions. You had to do that because they [the pamphlets] were behind the counter." He says because he did not want to "annoy" the employee too much, he ended up leaving with insufficient information.

Shop till you drop

Along with sightseeing, one of the main reasons some tourists come to the US is to shop.

For the Japanese, shopping, skiing, or playing golf in the US is cheaper than staying home and doing the same activities in Japan, explains Isao Kato, staff assistant of administration for Japan Airlines. For instance, one tie in Japan can cost from US$80 to US$90, Kato says. Japanese tourists "come here once in a lifetime ... [and] ... they are really well-informed ... [on] where to go for handbags, cosmetics," he adds.

Japanese tourists, who tend to be from the younger and the older generations, used to travel to the US in the 1980s in large tour groups and remained with their group throughout the visit. Many Japanese tourists now specialize by going off in smaller tour groups to ski or play golf at Pebble Beach, Calif., explains Kato.

Unlike the Japanese tourists, one of Murphy's main reasons for visiting the US was to sightsee. But he says the "high" admission prices to Boston's museums and historical sites made it difficult to visit many places.

He suggests that if several museums and attractions were grouped together and sold under one price, it would be more affordable for a number of international tourists.

But how easy is it to get around in the US if you do not speak English?

Some tourists, such as those from Japan, have a translator. Those without translators can hope to find publications in their native language at visitor centers. Ms. Thompson of SFVIC says it is very easy to find native speakers of your own language in San Francisco. She says SFVIC's staff is multilingual and publications are translated in four different languages. Not all major cities have the same level of services, however.

Commenting on his five visits to the US, Bromley says he thinks of them more as adventures than sightseeing trips.

"If you regard tourism as some sort of thing to take in a few beauty spots, there is no adventure to it. It's mundane ... and what's the point of travel? If you see travel as an adventure and you want to be changed, then America is the best place for that," says Bromley.

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