Image: Grand Canyon
Amanda Lee Myers  /  AP
John and Christine Rickard from England's Isle of Wight get their picture taken at the Grand Canyon. The couple took advantage of the weak U.S. dollar and spent three weeks in the western United States.
updated 4/22/2008 2:30:37 PM ET 2008-04-22T18:30:37

When Steve Meissner of Berlin bought a 1956 butter yellow Cadillac online, he could have simply had it shipped from Arizona to Germany.

Instead, he flew to the U.S. with a buddy, hopped in the Caddy and began a road trip that included the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks in Utah, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

"This is adventure. This is cruising," Meissner said recently as he shopped at a roadside stand on the popular south rim of the Grand Canyon. "Driving west with a '56 Cadillac — that's a dream."

Like an increasing number of foreign travelers to the U.S., Meissner couldn't resist taking advantage of the weak U.S. dollar and gas prices here.

"Our euro is so up, and gas is dirt cheap," said the 45-year-old wedding photographer, who shipped the car to Germany after his adventure. "We pay $8 a gallon in Germany, so we enjoy pumping gas at three bucks a gallon."

International visitors to the United States increased to more than 56.7 million people in 2007, an 11.1 percent increase over the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Visitors from Canada, Mexico, England, Japan and Germany top the list.

Although Grand Canyon National Park officials don't track visitors' nationalities, they say they've noticed a sharp increase in international tourists in the past year or so and estimate that they now make up about 40 percent of all visitors to the massive gorge.

"Every other group is speaking a different language," Grand Canyon Superintendent Steve Martin said. "You have Brits, people from Australia and New Zealand and India and a number of Asian countries and Hispanics. It's just incredible."

Martin said domestic visitation to the Grand Canyon likely is staying constant. Overall visitation to the Grand Canyon increased to more than 4.4 million tourists in 2007, a 3.1 percent increase from the previous year.

That reflects a greater number of visitors going to national parks across the country. The national park system recorded more than 275 million tourists last year, a 1 percent increase over 2006.

The large, iconic national parks in the West, including the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Yosemite parks, saw some of the largest increases.

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Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson said it's difficult to explain the trends, but attributed some of the increases at the iconic parks to pent-up visitation.

"People just love those Western parks," he said. "Maybe they hadn't been to see Yosemite for three, four or five years or so, and the guy just says, 'Marge, we have to go to Yosemite this year,' and they do."

Olson also suspects foreign travelers are boosting the numbers.

"The Canadian dollar is much stronger, the euro is much stronger, and that translates into good travel deals in the United States for Europeans and Canadians," he said. "If people overseas had postponed a trip the United States for a couple years or so, the strong euro was probably a nice incentive to make that trip."

John and Christine Rickard from England's Isle of Wight recently took advantage of the U.S. economy, taking a three-week trip to the Western United States that included stops in the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Las Vegas and San Diego.

"You're really feeling the pinch at the moment," Christine Rickard, 66, said with a wink at one of the Grand Canyon's stunning overlooks.

"We just had a cup of hot chocolate and it was half of what we would have paid in England," John Rickard, 68, said. "It's very worthwhile coming here in the present circumstances."

Although international visitors in the U.S. are up overall, the Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association points out that they are being driven by Canadians and Mexicans. Commerce Department figures show overseas visitors are still about 2 million below those prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"With the dollar at an all-time low, this is a phenomenal bargain," said Travel Industry Association President and CEO Roger Dow. "We're not realizing the numbers we should. We certainly have a long way to go."

Tom Sargent, manager at the Desert View General Store on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, isn't complaining.

"We're really happy to have the foreign visitors," he said. "Without them, we'd be up a creek."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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