As the sun sets on the coast of south Florida, a bus growls its way toward Miami's poshest hotels, resonating with the joyous but tired clatter of Spanish and Portuguese tongues.
South American tourists are on their way back from bargain hunting at Sawgrass Mills, a sprawling mall in this town near Fort Lauderdale. As Florida's second-most-popular tourist attraction, just after Disney World, this mile-and-a-half stretch of 270 stores and royal-palm-lined indoor "streets" draws 300,000 visitors a week.
Like other malls its size nationwide, it has become an economic superstar, drawing especially on big-spending foreign tourists. Twelve states count a shopping behemoth among their top three tourist sites. In Virginia, for instance, more people visit Potomac Mills mall than go to Colonial Williamsburg, Mt. Vernon, and Virginia Beach combined.
But simply tacking together an endless array of shops is no longer sufficient in the ever-more-sophisticated realm of mega-malls. Sawgrass Mills, for instance, targets advertisements for shop-till-you-drop-every-day-for-a-week vacation packages at South Americans to lure more business.
And in Disneyesque fashion, malls are making entertainment a key part of the shopping experience. At the Rainforest Cafe in Sawgrass Mills, mechanical snakes smile and hiss at visitors, and parrot squawks emanate from hidden speakers.
"Beautiful," gasps Irene Quinteido as she describes her day at the mall, which was the last stop in a world tour that also took her to Paris, Madrid, and New York. Tomorrow she's flying back to Montevideo, Uruguay.
She and the millions of other South American tourists have been pumping unprecedented amounts of cash into south Florida's tourist industry, helping the state pull in a record $10 billion last year. More than half the visitors to the Sunshine State came from overseas last year.
The mega-mall trend has taken off all over the country - Minnesota's Mall of America is the third-most-visited spot behind Disney World and country-music mecca Branson, Mo. But the phenomenon is most prominent in Greater Miami.
"You go to Nevada and gambling is what [the state's convention and visitor bureau] cares about. In Miami, shopping is what they care about," says Rosemary McCormick, a shopping consultant. She is helping one developer put up the huge Dolphin mall, just five miles from Miami International Airport.
More and more, south Florida's malls are trying to give tourists a new mall experience. Carmen Quintana travels from Hialeah, Fla., to Sawgrass Mills roughly twice a month. She comes not just to browse the upscale Saks Fifth Avenue, but to have fun with her son, Jorge, in what looks more like a tropical theme park than a haven of consumerism.
The alligator-shaped mall gives its parking lots names such as the Yellow Toucan or the Red Snapper. The mall's mascot is a costumed character named "Sunny." A stroll through the mall reveals new environments at every turn. Stars blink in the concrete canopy above the Art Deco "street."
While Sawgrass Mills is on the cutting edge of injecting entertainment into shopping, nearby upscale malls such as Dadeland near Miami are among the most successful in attracting wealthy South Americans, who are by far the biggest spenders.
A Brazilian in Miami, for instance, spends an average of $381 a day - almost twice as much as the typical tourist from the US.
The Dadeland mall spends 30 percent of its advertising budget in Latin America. Marketing efforts include a successful program for the spouses of businesspeople and special tours for cruise-ship visitors stopping in Miami for a day.
As a personal shopper at Dadeland's Burdines, a Florida department store, Faye Mowzoon particularly knows the benefits of having South American customers.
"They just come, give me their credit cards, and I pick up the stuff for them," she says. Ms. Mowzoon gives these clients advice about what to wear and when there are sales. Ranging from TV stars to wealthy housewives, they tend to spend $8,000 or more per visit.
STATES WITH MALLS AMONG THEIR
TOP TOURIST SPOTS
California: Pier 39 in San Francisco, South Coast Plaza in Orange County, and Horton Plaza in San Diego.
Colorado: Cherry Creek mall in Denver.
Florida: Sawgrass Mills mall near Fort Lauderdale and Dadeland mall in Miami.
Georgia: Phipps Plaza in Atlanta.
Hawaii: Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in Waikiki and Ala Moana in Honolulu.
Illinois: Woodfield mall in Woodfield.
Louisiana: Riverwalk mall in New Orleans.
Minnesota: Mall of America in Richfield.
Pennsylvania: The Plaza & The Court in King of Prussia.
South Carolina: Broadway at the Beach in Myrtle Beach.
Texas: The Galleria in Houston.
Virginia: Potomac Mills mall in Prince William County.
Source: McCormick Marketing