Tourism rises globally, but not to U.S.
With a weak dollar, America is a great buy for foreigners, yet visits are falling.
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It's a perception reflected in the numbers. The world's long-haul international travelers have jumped by 35 million since 2000, yet America has been largely overlooked by those new travelers, despite favorable exchange rates resulting from a weak dollar and attractions like Disney World and the Grand Canyon. In fact, the annual number of foreign visitors to the US is about 2 million lower than in 2000, leading travel-industry experts to figure that from 2000 to 2007, the US economy took a hit of about $150 billion.
This all comes at a time when the economy could use a little boost from free-spending foreigners.
With the economy anchored as voters' top concern for the fall elections, Congress is taking notice of the foreign-traveler deficit, considering ways to better communicate US entry requirements and to develop a "See America" promotional campaign. But even with that, it could be years before America's welcome recovers its lost luster, say travel experts.
"If you look at international travel as a pie, then the world pie is growing, but the US slice of it is shrinking – and that despite the fact that we are a great bargain," says Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association (TIA), a Washington-based representative of the $740-billion-a-year travel industry.
International travelers toting overflowing shopping bags in Manhattan and those filling Houston's trendy restaurants are exceptions. In all other major US cities and destinations, the numbers of long-haul foreign visitors (which excludes border hoppers from Canada and Mexico) are down – with reasons ranging from perceptions of close scrutiny at airports to the residual impact of a poor US image abroad.
When The Times of London recently suggested that foreigners with a hankering for Mickey and Minnie could save themselves the hassle of US travel by substituting Paris Disneyland, or fill a cowboy craving by visiting France's horse-rich Camargue rather than the American West, it stung in traditional American tourist destinations. Foreign visitors to Orlando, Fla., dropped by one-third from 2000 to 2006; by nearly 40 percent over the same period to Anaheim, Calif. (read Disneyland); and by 22 percent to Las Vegas, a frequent entry point for foreigners to the Southwest.
Some Americans might respond with a jingoistic "Who needs 'em?" But Mr. Dow notes that in all 50 states, travel and tourism figure somewhere among the top four industries by economic impact.
The economic impact is not just on hotels, restaurants, Liberty Island ticket sales, and T-shirt hawkers.