AS an international tourist destination, the United States was often seen as two coasts with nothing much in between. That view is now changing, as states and regions capitalize on ethnic connections and curiosity about ``the real America.'' Inbound tourists still hit the major cities on either coast heavily, and Disneyland and Disney World haven't lost their magic, but repeat customers are beginning to explore mid-America and off-the-beaten-path sites to a much greater degree.
``We're just beginning to scratch the surface,'' says Dick Matty, Wisconsin's enthusiastic director of tourism. Through a program of overseas promotions, the state has baited the ethnic hook for Europeans and now is going after the Japanese market, emphasizing golf, as well as fishing.
In Iowa, a modern pig farm is a popular attraction with Japanese tourists. Europeans, meanwhile, are venturing to inland ethnic pockets. Others want to visit Indian reservations, and still others are drawn to the sun, sand, and surf of a state like South Carolina, a pioneer in luring overseas visitors away from the big US draws.
``We have a potential gold mine here and we've begun to pan it very well,'' says Robert Liming, South Carolina's director of tourism. Part of the strategy in South Carolina's case is to encourage Europeans who have been to Disney World or other US tourist destinations to take a few days to unwind and relish a taste of true Southern hospitality.
``Europe in so cosmopolitan,'' Mr. Liming says, ``that you're just another tourist there. But you come to South Carolina and we say, `Wow, you're from England.' We really welcome them. That's a big selling point, which we market in our slogan, `Smiling Faces and Beautiful Places.'''
Part of the reason many states have begun to hop on the international tourism bandwagon is that these are boom times for the industry. Statistics compiled by the United States Travel and Tourism Administration make the point.
Last year, a record 38.3 million arrivals purchased US tourism ``products'': hotel accommodations, meals, rental cars, airfares, and the like. The United States even enjoyed a $6 billion surplus with Japan in this ``export'' area. (The Japanese are easily the biggest spenders among visitors to the US.)
Since 1985, overseas visitors have increased 49 percent. International travelers are expected to approach 40.7 million this year.
``This assumes we have a relatively stable economy and a relatively stable dollar,'' says Rockwell Schnabel, undersecretary of commerce for US travel and tourism.
Ambassador Schnabel says the United States is viewed ``as a good destination at a good value.'' He cites an increase in the global standard of living and an easing of political tensions worldwide as positive factors working to boost inbound tourism.
A perennial fascination with things American, however, may be the overarching advantage the US owns in pursuit of visitors.
``There is sort of this dream in many people's minds to find out what the United States is all about,'' says Schnabel, who predicts that a freer Eastern Europe will eventually encourage more explorations of ``the headquarters of the free world.''
The affluent tourist really drives the US market. Overseas visitors stay an average of just under three weeks and more than 70 percent have been to the US before, which helps to explain the search for new horizons.
Overseas tourists interested in nature are turning to eco-tourism, which Schnabel labels a strong ``growth area.'' This group is lured to the national parks and ``soft adventures,'' such as hiking and rafting.
A natural wonder that is beginning to receive a lot of attention is the Mississippi River. Ten bordering states have formed the International Marketing Committee of the Mississippi Parkway Commission. The committee has begun cultivating contacts with Japan, its target market.
``We're a long way from being prepared for this,'' acknowledges David Reynolds, Iowa's tourism director.
The need for interpreters, special signs, and travel agents versed in international arrangements is only beginning to be addressed. The US Travel and Tourism Administration, established nine years ago, considers tourist-readiness in the hinterlands part of its mandate.
``An advantage we have is that we're not hardened to the tourism industry,'' says Mr. Reynolds. ``We haven't gotten to the point where pure dollar benefit is going to be the overriding factor. We're pretty far from that.''