Foreign tourism is flat in U.S.

LAS VEGAS Despite the weak U.S. dollar, a boom in international travel around the world hasn't translated into an explosion of foreign tourists to the United States.

Explanations range from post-Sept. 11 security headaches and lower airfares elsewhere to poor marketing by the U.S. Whatever the cause, travel industry experts say the U.S. is missing an opportunity to make up for the shortfall in domestic tourism caused by high fuel prices.

At Heli USA Airways, one of several operators that whisk visitors on aerial tours of the Las Vegas strip and nearby Grand Canyon, vice president of marketing and sales John Power said the faltering U.S. economy and competition from other countries are crimping business.

“Right now, there's some other worldwide destinations that are taking some of the marketplace,” he said.

According to the U.N. World Tourism Organization, the United States had 51 million international visitors in 2000, more than 7 percent of the 682million international arrivals worldwide. But as international arrivals worldwide jumped to 846 million in 2006, the U.S. had roughly the same number of visitors as it used to – dropping its share to 6 percent.

The U.S. share of international tourism dollars has slipped, too, though the U.S. still drew more money than any other single country in 2006 and more than it did in 2000. From 16 percent of the market in 2000, or $82.4 billion, the U.S. took in 12 percent of the $733 billion worldwide tourism market, or $86 billion in 2006.

Major destinations such as Los Angeles; Orlando, Fla.; San Francisco; Miami; Honolulu; Las Vegas; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Boston all had 20percent to 34 percent fewer travelers in 2006 compared with 2000. Of the top 10 cities, only New York had more visitors in 2006 than in 2000, with a 9 percent increase to 6.2 million arrivals, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Nearly 26 million people traveled to the United States from overseas in 2000. But that dropped drastically after 9-11, according to data from the U.S. Commerce Department's Office of Travel & Tourism Industries. The number bottomed out in 2003 with 18million overseas visitors, and with 24 million last year still had not returned to previous levels. The figures do not include visitors from Canada and Mexico, whose numbers are up substantially from 2000 but who tend to spend less than other international travelers to the U.S.

Part of the problem is the perception of frosty U.S. attitudes toward foreigners starting at customs, said Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association. That and other factors make it difficult to attract more overseas travelers. The U.S. should decode its complex entry rules and boost staffing at customs checkpoints, Dow and others said.

“The perception is in spades that we're less welcoming” than other countries, he said.

Frequent U.S. visitor George Somerville, of Glasgow, Scotland, said international flights are generally cheaper to places other than the United States.

“In the last 12 months, destinations my colleagues have traveled to include China twice, Singapore, India and Thailand,” he said. “Much of that is to do with the price of flights – Air Asia, Emirates and Singapore airlines are doing great deals from the U.K.”

Somerville, 40, called customs in the U.S. a “daunting prospect” that requires fingerprints and retinal scans.

Some in the travel industry blame how the U.S. markets itself abroad.

Power said his Las Vegas tour company will continue pushing for foreign travelers, but he called on all players to step up.

“Whose customers are they, really? Is it the airline, is it the hotel they stay at, is it the sightseeing operator that they go to do an experience with, is it the car rental company?” Power said. “Ultimately, they're everybody's, and everybody's got to be on the same page.”