Overseas Arrivals to U.S. Dip 2.1% in 1998

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U.S. travel and tourism businesses learned a lesson in 1998: Don't take the popularity of the U.S. as a destination for granted, even from countries that have been traditional strongholds for inbound travel.

The number of overseas visitors to the U.S. fell 2.1% in 1998, the first decline since 1994, when publicized cases of crime against foreign tourists in Florida contributed to a 1.1% drop.

PowWow logo.Canada, the U.S.' biggest source of tourists, performed worse; Canadian travelers to the U.S. fell by about 11%. That is twice as much as the U.S. Commerce Department had predicted and the largest drop since 1994.

Economic crises in Asia and Brazil had major impacts, as did the exchange rate in Canada. But it would be a mistake to place all of the blame on economic factors, said Helen Marano, director of tourism development for tourism industries.

"We're losing as a country of choice to some degree as well," she said.

Canada is one example. The exchange rate punished Canadian travelers to the U.S. (and simultaneously rewarded U.S. travelers to Canada). But Canada also had a "stay home and visit your own country" campaign, and Cuba, the Caribbean and countries in Europe made pushes for Canadian travelers, Marano said.

Similarly, Australian residents responded strongly to campaigns encouraging them to travel in the Pacific region, contributing to an 8% downturn in travel to the U.S.

"The responsibility within the industry would be to continue to highlight new products for our more mature and stabilized markets ... to make sure we don't lose them to people who have sexier offerings," Marano added. "We still have to stay fresh, to not assume that people will come just because we're here."

That means tourism officials need to show potential travelers a new product or a new twist on an old destination, she said. For example, Atlanta and Philadelphia developed cultural heritage packages, and Philadelphia touted the shopping angle with its King of Prussia mall.

Here's a quick look at how the U.S. fared in other top markets last year:

Arrivals from Asia were down 13% overall, with South Korea plummeting 51.2%.

Arrivals from Japan, the top overseas market, fell 9% amid recession and the country's midyear campaign encouraging people to travel within the region.

Brazil, whose arrivals fell 3.3%, won't overtake France as the third-biggest overseas market, as had been predicted before its economic troubles began. But South America still rose 4.5% as a whole, and Central America jumped 23.6%. n

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