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Economic bright spot: bargain-hunting foreigners flocking to US

The dollar has taken a beating, but that makes America an attractive destination for foreigners looking for bargain vacations. It's a boon for the US tourist industry and travel-related jobs.

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Demand for US hotel rooms is at a record high, says Jan Freitag, a senior vice president at Smith Travel Research, which has tracked hotel occupancy rates since 1989. More than 1 billion America hotel rooms were sold between June 2010 and May 2011 – the highest number on record, says Mr. Freitag.

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“The weak dollar makes the East and West Coasts of the US very, very attractive for the overseas traveler,” says Freitag.

Even better for the US economy, foreign visitors are leaving more dollars in American cash registers this year than last.

“Once they get here,” says Norton, “they can spend more than they did last year without dramatically increasing their travel budget.”

One way to think about tourism’s economic boost is to imagine exporting goods to foreign consumers – without sending the goods anywhere. “They do the shipping by putting their bodies here,” says Mr. Naroff.

According to Global Insight's Norton, China, Brazil, Australia, and France are among the nations that sent more visitors to America this year than last. Japan sent fewer, especially after the earthquake and tsunami in March.

Increased spending by international tourists means more jobs for Americans.

During the first half of the year, the travel industry added some 75,000 jobs – about 10 percent of all jobs created in the US during that time, says David Huether, senior vice president of economics and research at the US Travel Association. Overall, tourism jobs have grown about 1.7 times faster than those in the rest of the economy since the labor marketed bottomed out in February 2010, he says.

“In a sense, they’re a stimulus package that pays for itself,” Huether says.

Still, some analysts warn that relying on a weak dollar to spur international travel to the US is a short-sighted business plan. Instead, the US Travel Association and other groups representing the tourism industry have pushed the Obama administration to ease restrictions on foreign visitors and to streamline the visa-granting process.

For her part, Ms. Yamanaka says she plans to make the most of her short time in the US before heading to Venezuela with her husband, Atsushi Yamanaka. Though the two have been in Manhattan for only one day, they’ve already trekked to the SoHo neighborhood downtown and strolled along Fifth Avenue in midtown. Not coincidently, both areas are shopping meccas.

When the couple finished their burgers and fries Friday afternoon, Ms. Yamanaka said they were off to visit two of their favorite Big Apple destinations: Macy’s and Tiffany’s.

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