The Travel Buck Stops Here

America, give a warm welcome to Naomi Sasaki. The 27-year-old Tokyo resident will spend six days in Oahu this July, and she plans to bring her wallet. She'll lay out perhaps $3,700 for food, transportation, and clothes for her toddler and a surfboard for her husband. "It's lucky that the yen is strong now," she says.

Summer is coming, and so are the Japanese. And the Germans, and many others. With the dollar near all-time lows vs. the yen and the mark, the U.S. tourism industry--everyone from Denver dude ranchers to helicopter flight operators out of Juneau, Alaska--is expecting a boom season. "This will be the best summer in the history of Best Western without question," says Thomas Waffle, director of North American reservations at the 3,400-hotel chain, whose advance summer reservations are up by 14%.

Los Angeles is bracing for a flood of foreign visitors. The riots of 1992 and last year's Northridge earthquake combined to severely dampen Japanese travel to Southern California. Now, though, tour operators report that May and June bookings to the city by Japanese travelers--who spend 50% more than Americans--are up 15% from last year; bookings for July through September are up 10%. At the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, the Japanese-visitor count this March was more than 50% higher than a year ago.

German visitors, meanwhile, are winging westward. In Washington, German tourism has increased 52%, to 172,000 in 1994, from five years ago. German travel companies are predicting an overall increase of 5% to 10% in Germans vacationing in the U.S. For now, the crowds from Germany and Japan may be balanced by fewer visitors from Mexico and Canada, whose currencies have weakened against the dollar. In the long run, though, "it will be a positive net impact," says Greg Farmer, Commerce Under Secretary for Travel & Tourism, since German and Japanese tourists tend to return once they've visited the U.S.

CHEAP GAS. Dollar woes haven't much curbed Americans' appetite for foreign adventure: The European Travel Commission is expecting 8.7 million American travelers this year, and the U.S. State Dept. expects to issue a record number of passports. Trafalgar Tours, a London company that specializes in European bus tours, says this summer's bookings from Americans are up 20% over last year.

But many Americans will stay at home, too. Gasoline, at an average of $1.13 a gallon, is reasonable, and airlines have plenty of unsold seats. United Airlines Inc. says advance U.S. ticket sales for the summer are up 5% from 1994--but adds that capacity is up 3% to 4%. Come July, Sasaki will have plenty of company on Oahu's beaches.