Coming to America — for a great currency rate

Image: British tourists
British tourists take in the view from the "Top of the Rock" at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.David Goldman / NYT via Redux Pictures

Disappointed you won’t be taking in the sights in Paris or Rome this summer? If you were hoping to rub shoulders with your French or Italian compatriots, don't worry — they’re all here.

With a weak dollar, foreign tourists are flocking to the United States — particularly New York City. Compared with last year, the number of international visitors increased by as much as 12 percent during the first four months of 2008.

Weak dollar
It’s hard to imagine a city like New York seeming cheap to anyone, but for many foreign travelers, that’s exactly what it is. With every one euro equal to $1.58 and every one British pound equal to $1.99, if there was ever a time for Europeans to travel in the U.S., it’s now.

Compare that to $1 equaling only €.63 and $1 equal to only £.50, plus expensive plane tickets thanks to high gas prices, and you can see why Americans are not racing across the pond anytime soon.

In real terms, that means everything from morning coffee to clothes costs about double in London. A “tall” coffee costs £1.65 at a Starbucks in London. It may look close to the $1.75 one would pay for a cup of Pike’s Roast regular coffee in the Big Apple, but a quick conversion shows your British cup of mud will run you $3.30 — twice what you’d pay at home.

And the euro has grown significantly stronger since this time last year: one euro equaled $1.38 last July. Meanwhile the British pound has weakened slightly, falling from last July's $2.06 mark.

Foreign tourists are aware of the advantage and they are coming and spending.

Douglas Rae, 62, a London resident who was sight-seeing at the Top of the Rock Observation Deck in midtown Manhattan, put it simply, saying shopping for clothes in New York is basically “half price.”

Rae, who is coincidentally one of the producers of the new film “Brideshead Revisited,” came to New York for the movie's premiere, and he brought his 16-year-old son, Rory, along. In addition to visiting the Museum of Modern Art, Soho and Tribeca, they were also going shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch and Ralph Lauren.

Compared to London, Rae found the restaurants in New York cheaper, too. “London is unbelievable. I don’t know how you can afford to eat in London,” he said. “Two-hundred dollars for two people for dinner is about the average.”

Giovanni Rigodanza, 24, who comes from Verona, Italy, but has recently been living in London, was also taking advantage of the chance to buy retail goods for significantly less. “I bought an iPod for my girlfriend,” said Rigodanza, who was carrying a bag from the Apple Store on 5th Avenue while he took in the sights at the Top of the Rock. He explained that at $200, “it was about half” what he would pay for it in London.

Steady stream of visitors
During the first four months of 2008, more than 15 million foreign travelers visited the United States and spent $11.6 billion in the month of April alone — a 21 percent increase from April 2007 — according to the U.S. Department of Commerce which tracks travel and tourism statistics.

After Canada and Mexico, the largest group of foreign tourists is from Western Europe, and their visits through April of this year have increased by double-digit percentages, the agency reports.

**FILE** A sightseeing bus with tourist drives past the Apollo Theater and turns at the intersection known as African Square in the New York neighborhood of Harlem in this Oct. 18, 2007, file photo. With increased commercialization steadily challenging the character Harlem's 125th Street corridor, city officials will vote Monday, March 10, 2008, on a massive rezoning plan to allow apartments, high-rises and arts institutions: hoping to revive the cultural identity that makes the neighborhood famous. Some residents, however, fear that the big development will price them out of their longtime home. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)Bebeto Matthews / AP

More than 1.4 million Brits visited the U.S. between January and April of this year, an increase of 7 percent over the same period in 2007; Nearly 500,000 Germans visited during the same period for an increase of 17 percent compared to the same period last year; 339,000 French have visited already this year for an increase of 23 percent for the year; and 69,000 people from the Netherlands had visited by April for an increase of 58 percent.

The United States has always been a draw for international tourists, but the huge rebound following the tourism dip caused by the September 11 attacks is significant.

In 2000, 51.2 million international travelers visited the United States. Those numbers dropped by 10 million to a low of 41.2 million by the end of 2003, according to numbers compiled by the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. By the end of 2007, the number of foreign travelers had surpassed even the pre-Sept. 11 highs,  with 56 million visitors.

“We are on track to have another record-breaking year for international travel and tourism in the United States,” said Commerce Manufacturing and Services Assistant Secretary William G. Sutton. “Growing international arrivals and receipts underscore the benefits of openness on the U.S. economy. Our thriving travel and tourism industry supports millions of jobs and is a key part of America's strong exports growth. I believe these positive trends will continue through the end of 2008,” Sutton said.

Looking for discounts
And while the Statute of Liberty, the Empire State Building and luxury shops on 5th Avenue have long been draws for foreign tourists in New York, 8.76 million of whom visited the city in 2007, now many of the city’s discount shopping meccas are becoming major destinations, too.

One recent afternoon, when New York City was heading headlong into a heat wave, the digital temperature sign outside Century 21 — a huge discount department store in lower Manhattan, directly across the street from the World Trade Center site — read 92 degrees at 4:40 p.m.

Beleaguered New Yorkers slogged toward the subway to make their way home. Inside the air conditioned retail giant, though, the lines for dressing rooms were 15 deep and at least a half dozen different languages could be heard in the ladies’ dress section where shoppers had clothes piled high in rolling carts.

For a number of tourists, Century 21 was on the top of their lists of things to see and do while in New York. Two tourists from Bologna, Italy, Claudia Massri, 29, and Federica Bacchilega, 31, had just arrived in the city and visited the Statue of Liberty, World Trade Center and the discount store on their first day.

“For me it’s fantastic,” said Sophia Edstrand, 25, another shopper, about her increased purchasing power thanks to the weak dollar. Traveling from Sweden, Edstrand said she has been to the city to visit her boyfriend several times and that she mostly buys clothes from “American designers” when she is here because it is just so much cheaper.

Likewise, Sarah Sjoeholm, 30, a native of Copenhagen, Denmark, had visited the exact same spots as the Italian tourists on her first day in the city.

Century 21 is a privately owned company and declined to answer questions regarding any possible increase of sales as a result of the growth of foreign visitors.

Sjoeholm, who was taking a break from the heat and enjoying a beer with her boyfriend at Fanelli’s, one of New York city’s oldest bars in Soho, said the weak greenback wasn’t the only reason she is traveling in the United States this summer, but it definitely helps.

“I just always wanted to go here, to see New York. I heard so much about it, so we said this year, we are going to go,” said Sjoeholm. However she did point out that her beer would probably cost about twice as much if she were in Copenhagen.

Taking it in stride
While many Americans are staying closer to home this summer, New Yorkers have taken the influx of visitors in stride.

The New York Post even published a tongue-in-cheek article about making the most of all the visitors titled, “Foreign Affairs: How to Score a NYC Tourist.”

The article, which included a jaunty photo of beret-wearing, baguette carrying man arm in arm with a blond woman, and another man in a soccer uniform carrying a soccer ball, even had a sidebar story on “The International Language of Loooooove” with an off-color list of suggested pick-up lines for tourists from a variety of countries.