• U.S.

A Yen for a Bargain

7 minute read
Gordon Bock

The British are coming, most by air, a few by sea. So are the Japanese, the French, the Germans, the Italians. Not to mention the Australians, Brazilians, Thais and Taiwanese. As the U.S. dollar lingers near its lowest post-World War II levels against such foreign currencies as the Japanese yen and the West German mark, large crowds of visitors from overseas are streaming onto U.S. shores this year, cameras and shopping lists at the ready. From California’s redwood forests to the South’s Gulf Stream waters, from Malibu to Maine, foreign tongues are echoing through all the familiar U.S. tourist attractions — and some of the offbeat haunts as well.

So debilitated is the dollar that some Europeans — not just the jet-set crowd, mind you — are dropping in on New York City just for a weekend, blitzing the stores along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and queuing up for Broadway shows. “We’ve been to Majorca, Crete and Yugoslavia,” says one of the whirlwind invaders, Phil Stevens, 43, a carpet fitter from Britain. “But,” he crows, “America is so cheap this year!”

Crowded too. The U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration expects 11.9 million overseas visitors in 1988, 1.4 million more than last year’s record number of arrivals. The largest contingent will come from Japan, which will send an estimated 2.8 million people, up 32% from 1987. Next in line are 1.6 million Britons (an 18% increase), 1.1 million West Germans (10%), 585,000 French (8%) and 350,000 Italians (10%). The only major countries not participating in the upsurge of tourist traffic to the U.S. are Canada and Mexico. The Canadian dollar has not gained nearly as much ground against the U.S. dollar as the European and Japanese currencies have, and the peso has fallen 45% against the greenback in the past year.

As the summer tourism season swings into full gear after the Memorial Day weekend, U.S. hoteliers, theme-park operators, tour organizers and car-rental agencies are bracing for a flood of revenue, certain that the visitors will bring plenty of money to spread around. A Government survey done in 1986, when the dollar was 25% stronger, showed that an overseas traveler spent an average of $1,358 ($340 on gifts and souvenirs alone) while in the U.S. This year visitors are expected to inject some $10.7 billion into the U.S. economy. Partly because of this infusion, revenues for the U.S. hotel and motel industry could rise to $54 billion, up 6% from 1987.

The decision to book a trip to the U.S. is a matter of dollars and sense: it is now as cheap for Europeans and Asians to head to America as it is for them to vacation much closer to home. Visiting the sun-splashed beaches of Okinawa costs a Tokyo couple about as much as a hop to Hawaii. For $342, a Parisian can choose either a 1 1/2-hour flight to Corsica or an eight-hour trip to New York on planes chartered by the French tour operator Nouvelles Frontieres. And now that a pound buys $1.87 (up from $1.04 in 1985), Britons are taking advantage of package deals such as a Virgin Atlantic Airways offer that takes them to New York on a Thursday, deposits them in a hotel for three nights and gets them back, bleary-eyed, to London’s Gatwick Airport by the following Monday morning — all for $690. A similar jaunt from London to Rome would cost $537 — but the pound does not go nearly as far in Italy as it does in the U.S.

Seeking to cash in on the rising interest in seeing America, U.S. promoters are making direct appeals to potential customers abroad. Londoners have seen 30-second TV spots sponsored by the California office of tourism in which British TV Personality Denis Norden touts the merits of Hollywood, Disneyland and Fisherman’s Wharf. “The Golden Gate is red,” Norden intones while the majestic San Francisco bridge flickers onscreen, giving way to a stand of trees. “Giant redwoods are green.” Europeans who want brochures on Disney World and other attractions in Florida can now write directly to a British address and get a quicker response than they would if they had to send an inquiry across the Atlantic.

Once tourists arrive in the U.S. — and have made their way through what by their standards are cumbersome immigration and customs formalities — they find that the red carpet is unrolled. Especially eager to please are American merchants. At New York City’s Bloomingdale’s department store, where foreigners account for 20% of annual sales, managers stage private breakfasts for select groups of tourists, who can feast on eggs Benedict while watching a fashion show or cosmetics demonstration. Escorts are also available to lead shoppers through the store, helping them with size conversions and translations. Some of the restaurant staff at Manhattan’s Sheraton Centre hotel, aided by a tutor, have learned to utter in Japanese such phrases as “Do you want your eggs fried or scrambled?” and “Be careful — the plate ; is hot.” An Italian speaker has begun teaching personnel a few basic sentences in that language as well. In North Hollywood 36 Universal Studios tour guides translate into German, French, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish the behind-the-scenes stories of the making of such films as King Kong, Psycho and Jaws (to the French speaking, Les Dents de la Mer, or The Teeth of the Sea). Even so, Americans still lag behind Europeans when it comes to learning the languages of tourists from abroad.

The visitors journeying to the U.S. do not hesitate to spend money. Like Americans who stocked up on Burberry trench coats, Gucci loafers and Hermes scarves in Europe back when the U.S. currency was king, tourists in the U.S. are seizing upon a host of unbeatable deals made possible by the fallen dollar. Clothing, cameras and cosmetics are among goods that are often 20% to 30% cheaper in the U.S. than back home. Sometimes the savings can be even greater. A pair of Levi’s 501 jeans selling for $76 in West Germany, for example, can be bought for less than half that price in Los Angeles. At the Louis Vuitton store on Manhattan’s East 57th Street, where the most popular handbag sells for $295 (vs. $489 in Tokyo), nearly 50% of the customers are Japanese, and the percentage climbs to 65% at the company’s Rodeo Drive outlet in Beverly Hills. Europeans, who make up one-third of the clientele at Stuart Limited, an upscale six-store men’s clothing chain in the Miami area, snap up $75 silk shirts and $475 leather jackets so quickly that Owner Stuart Graver can barely keep the apparel in stock. Says Graver: “They just gobble those up each time we get an order.” As creative director for a Paris advertising agency, Rene Fatton, 41, lives in the world’s fashion capital, yet he buys clothes in Los Angeles. Says he: “Ralph Lauren costs a lot less there.”

Some government bodies are considering what they can do to boost spending even more. The Louisiana legislature, for one, is weighing a bill that would refund foreign travelers’ payments of taxes on the goods they buy — matching the arrangement that exists for U.S. citizens in most European countries. Says State Representative James Donelon, the bill’s co-sponsor: “Except for tourism, the economy in Louisiana is severely depressed. Encouraging tourism is the one area where we can make a good thing better.”

Some Americans look upon the surge in foreign tourism with mixed feelings, if only because it reminds them of the sharp decline of their currency. For all its benefits for visitors from abroad, the dollar’s drop has made imports and overseas travel much more expensive for Americans. No complaints, though, from U.S. hoteliers and tour operators, who will happily rake in record profits until, if ever, the dollar starts to recover.

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