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Although there was a small uptick in visits from our next-door neighbors, Canada and Mexico, the trend in overseas visitors to the U.S. continues down, or flat, from its high of 26 million in 2000 to 21.7 million last year.
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updated 11/7/2007 10:35:48 AM ET 2007-11-07T15:35:48

What do the Brazilians, the Chinese and the Dutch have in common?

Don’t worry, this is not the set-up for a bad joke. The answer is that they are among the nations with the greatest number of visitors to the U.S. last year.

In fact, Brazil, China and the Netherlands sit squarely in the middle of the top 20 countries of origin for visitors to the U.S., each with approximately half a million travelers to the States in 2006.

These geographically far-flung peers are not the only surprises on the list, which is published by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries (OTTI) and is based on its survey of international travelers.

Although there was a small uptick in visits from our next-door neighbors, Canada and Mexico, the trend in overseas visitors to the U.S. continues down, or flat, from its high of 26 million in 2000 to 21.7 million last year. In other words, despite the fact that the record-low dollar makes the U.S. a tourist’s and shopper’s paradise, the total non-North American number of visitors has actually declined.

And while some perennially strong visitor sources for the U.S., such as the U.K. and France, remain in the top 10, their numbers declined in 2006, down 4 percent and 10 percent, respectively, year to year.

Geoff Freeman, executive director of the Discover America Partnership, a travel-industry lobbying group, points to the effect of post-9/11 press about U.S. entry policies — though not to the policies themselves. The U.S., he says, is suffering from an image crisis overseas. “We have, since 9/11, put in place reasonable policies” for travelers entering the country, he said, “but we haven’t taken the time to explain those policies. In the foreign press you see horror story after horror story about the U.S. entry experience.” The group says the U.S. has experienced a 17 percent decline in overseas visitors since September 2001.

The Discover America Partnership has backed the “Improving Public Diplomacy through International Travel Act,” a bill introduced to Congress in September that proposes a nationally coordinated program to attract foreign travelers. The bill describes a five-year promotion campaign targeting, in phases, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany.

Freeman said the campaign would be financed by private industry and by a fee paid by countries in the visa-waiver program (which allows travelers from approved countries to travel to the U.S. for a limited time without a visa).

As for whether or not these barriers to entry are anomalies, Freeman said, “I sure hope so, and I’d go out on a limb and say I agree (that they are). But as any political operative knows, if you let a charge go unanswered, it sticks, and takes on a life of its own.” A couple of bad stories, he said, are enough to create a high-profile negative perception.

Ron Erdmann, Deputy Director at the Commerce Department’s OTTI, agrees that it’s bad press, not too-tough entry requirements. “I think the hype that you hear on the entry process being a burden is pure hype,” he said. “While there are anomalies and horror stories, we have 50 million visitors come to the U.S. and a vast majority coming in and out with no problem — and they continue to come back. Those horror stories exist, and they need to be fixed,” he said, but they’re the exception.

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What is really happening, says Erdmann, is that “we’re seeing a shift occurring in source markets. Canada and Mexico’s close proximity and strong economies — the Canadian dollar is now on par with U.S. dollar — have had a tremendous influence in stimulating growth in our neighbors to the north and south. But in the overseas markets [of Europe and Asia], what we’re seeing is very slow growth: In 2006 we had a sort of a setback of arrivals in the U.S. from top markets.”

Erdmann explains the shift in terms of global competition. “There has been a proliferation of low-cost carriers with very cheap fairs into Eastern Europe,” he said, “so Europeans are traveling within Europe now. It can cost less than $100 to travel within Europe, compared with several hundred dollars to fly to the U.S.”

The same thing is happening in Asia, he said. “Emerging markets such as China, Malaysia, India and Thailand have experienced good economic growth, and (their citizens) are exploring that region; that’s where the growth is.”

At the Travel and Tourism Research Association Conference in Las Vegas this June, Helen Marano, Director of the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries and Alan Waddell, Chief Operating Officer of The Visit USA Association (U.K.), tried to dispel a myth that the U.S. stands alone in global market share loss. Four of the top five — and 15 of the top 19 — international destinations have lost market share over the past 5 years, they said, predicting these destinations would lose more share over the next five years while Asian countries gained.

Even in the midst of downward year-to-year trends from several major markets, a few countries showed significant percentage increases in their residents’ visitation to the U.S. in 2006. South Korea, for example, sent more than 750,000 travelers to the States in 2006, a 7 percent year-to-year increase, and Ireland’s visitation is up 8 percent year to year, and a robust 45 percent since 2000.

Spain’s visitor numbers increased 10 percent compared with 2005. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce Web site, Spaniards’ “interest in rugged western outdoor tourism has grown noticeably. Growing interest in Native American culture and traditions has also been detected.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce has been deploying some promotional efforts of its own. Last year it launched a tourism campaign to attract Japanese visitors. According to a department Web site, the U.S. is the most popular overseas destination for Japanese travelers, and the promotion “invited audiences to remember their favorite scenes from American movies and to feel the excitement of seeing these locations in reality when planning their vacation to the United States ... The campaign’s catch phrase was ‘You’ve Seen the Films, Now Visit the Set.’” Still, the box office showed Japanese travel to the U.S. down 5 percent in 2006 compared with 2005.

In an October 24 press release, the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries announced, "In 2007, the United States is projected to host almost 54 million international visitors, a 5 percent increase over 2006." The forecast says visitors from Canada and Mexico will grow by 4 and 3 percent, respectively, in 2007 compared with 2006, visitation from Europe will increase 8 percent, and Asia Pacific arrivals are expected to increase between 3 and 6 percent.

The OTTI's forecast also said that between 2006 and 2011, "international arrivals will reach 61 million, an increase of 20 percent."

However, critics pointed out that overseas (non-North American) arrivals are still lagging behind pre-9/11 levels. According to a November 1 statement from the Discover America Partnership, this forecast indicates a "further sign of a travel system in crisis ... [OTTI] does not expect overseas arrivals to reach 2000 levels (26 million travelers) until at least 2010 — despite the crumbling dollar."

So which nation sent the most visitors to the U.S. last year? Which two South American countries, besides Brazil, made the top 20? Did Italy place in the top 10? See the slide show to find out ...

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