The welcome mat's out

FOR years Americans have happily escaped to Europe to enjoy the good buys in food and lodging. Now Americans are finding out what it's like to be the host in bargain country. Foreign tourism in the United States, thanks to the falling dollar, increased by 4 percent last year. The number of travelers from Europe, the prime foreign source after Canada and Mexico, shot up 28 percent.

The travel deficit, the only major piece of the trade imbalance decreasing rather than growing, fell 11 percent last year. But for reasons that go well beyond the money these foreign visitors spend here, it is all to the good that more of them are choosing to visit the US. Travel consistently broadens perspectives. Overseas visitors are likely to get a much more realistic view of what makes America tick by an in-person visit than by watching ``Dynasty'' on their home TV screens.

News that more Europeans now visit the West Coast while more Japanese head for the US East Coast is welcome. Many visitors, too, have made it beyond the usual ``gateway'' cities.

Many states and regions have launched aggressive tourism campaigns. Illinois, largely because of Chicago, now ranks fifth among US states in foreign visitors. And the Pan American Games slated for next August in Indiana are expected to be a big draw. But the heartland generally has some distance to go. A new promotion effort aims at luring overseas tourists through a focus on sites along the Mississippi River corridor.

The changes may not yet inspire Kansas City cabdrivers to learn Japanese, or hotels in Peoria to begin posting signs in Arabic. But travel has never been a one-way street; the experience of those visited is also broadened. Aside from finding more ways and places for overseas tourists to spend their money, communities should be thinking of ways they can make visitors more welcome - and learn everything they can in the process.

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