LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — Toshi Fukuda smiles giddily in front of The Gap at the Park Plaza Mall here as a passerby snaps her picture. She plans to show the photograph to her friends in Osaka, Japan, to prove she visited the store.
"It's so American," says Ms. Fukuda, a college student visiting Little Rock, Ark., for a summer exchange program. "We love The Gap. It's cool."
Fukuda is one of hordes of eager shoppers who would rather check out The Limited than Yellowstone Park. Malls, those uniquely American creations, have become hot tourist attractions - symbolizing the US as much as the Statue of Liberty.
In fact, Americans are just as drawn to malls as foreigners, often planning vacations around shopping excursions. Shopping, it seems, has become part of escaping, just like relaxing on the beach or visiting Cinderella's Castle at Disney World.
"This is what the United States is about: shopping," says Joel Garreau, author of "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier," a book about malls.
Mr. Garreau points to one of Virginia's top tourist attractions in Woodbridge - The Potomac Mills Mall - as a prime example of retail's popularity. Outlet malls are rapidly gaining popularity in resort areas, attracting 500 million visitors in 1996.
Rampant consumerism seems to hold more appeal for people than national icons. People made 43 million visits to Minneapolis's Mall of America last year, more than Disney World, the Grand Canyon, and Graceland combined.
MALLS are among the top tourist attractions in 10 states, including Texas, Missouri, and Virginia, according to McCormick Marketing, a Napa, Calif.-based retail consulting firm.
"Malls, even the outlet ones, are seen as centers of entertainment," explains Mr. Garreau. "In fact, a lot of people look at shopping as an indoor sport. They like to brag about their prowess at the game, especially when detecting a bargain."
About 77 percent of all adults do some sort of vacation shopping, according to a survey of 1,500 people by the Travel Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group. Three percent said it was the primary reason for their trip.
Debbie Williams drives seven hours from Warren, Ark., to Branson, Mo., once every three months to shop at outlet malls. "The bargains are too good to pass up," she says. "I love shopping. I've only been to one show in Branson. I go for the shopping. Most definitely."
Last year, Branson attracted 5.8 million tourists to its musical variety shows and three large outlet malls. The small Ozark town lures tour buses full of shoppers from as far away as Palm Beach, Fla., in search of that discounted Tommy Hilfiger shirt or Ralph Lauren comforter.
Naturally, merchandise and money go hand-in-hand. The shopping getaway has been fueled by the boom economy of the 1990s. Retail sales per US household increased 8.7 percent between 1992 and 1997, according to Woods & Poole Economics in Washington.
Should the economy flag, retailers may see more empty shopping carts in future years, especially since Generation-Xers don't spend like their baby boom counterparts. They're hoping that tourists will make up the difference.
To lure faraway shoppers, mall developers are doubling as tour operators, offering discounts and package deals. The World Class Shopping program, run by the Taubman Co., gives shoppers discounts on hotels and airfares to many of the cities where its 27 shopping centers are located, including Phoenix and Miami.
Chicago-based Urban Retail Properties Co. recently started a toll-free hot line where travelers can find out about shopping and travel packages in 10 US cities, including Memphis and Tampa, Fla. Tourists spend four to 10 times more than local shoppers and rarely return what they buy.
Garreau predicts that malls will become the next Paris or Venice, centers of modern-day culture. For now, he says mall developers are savvy to create environments where shopping meshes with entertainment - building movie theaters, amusement parks, ice skating rinks, and hotels.
"It's the perfect equation," says Garreau. "It comes down to do you shop until you drop, or stay overnight and have fun?"