A Battered Buck Brings Back Tourists

The weak greenback is turning the post-September 11 tide and boosting visitors to the U.S. -- despite irksome security measures

The cheap dollar gave Benjamin Atkins a nice present on a December trip to the U.S. The British visitor exchanged 800 euros for $900, garnering 30% more than he would have had when the greenback peaked a few years ago. That allowed Atkins and his wife, Shannon, to go on a buying spree, snatching up Christmas gifts for others and clothes for themselves. "It's always nice when you get more for your money than the last time you came," he says.

The Atkins' aren't the only ones who've discovered there's no time like the present to visit the U.S. Despite security alerts, canceled flights due to terrorist threats, and a new policy of fingerprinting foreigners, international travelers are returning to the States after a three-year hiatus.

"It was one thing after another with the September 11 attacks, the Iraq war, and SARS," says Noel Irwin Hentschel, chairman and CEO of AmericanTours International, a major global tour operator based in Los Angeles whose bookings are up by double digits this year. "But now the dollar is weak, and there is pent-up demand. The stars are aligned the other way."


  The international business is welcome news for hotels and airlines. During the fourth quarter, average U.S. hotel-room revenues ran nearly 4% ahead of year-ago levels, says market researcher Smith Travel Research. Gateway cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, and New York have seen revenues increase faster than the rest of the country. And foreign air carriers such as British Midland, AeroMexico, and Korean Air have added or restored flights canceled since September 11.

As in the domestic-travel industry, online travel sites seem to be playing a role in the turnaround. John Maguire, founder of discount travel site vacationonline.com, says his international business has quadrupled in recent months, even though he does almost no marketing abroad. Some customers are using language software to translate the site's content, which is available only in English.

Increased security precautions could yet rain on the industry's parade. Starting in October, the U.S. will require visitors from the 27 countries that don't require travel visas to have passports that include a chip with facial-recognition information encoded in them. If those high-tech passports aren't available in a particular country, travelers would have to take the added step of acquiring a visa.


  Many may not bother. Ingrid Kunkel, a retired banker from Frankfurt, says she and her husband, Ernst, spent more than an hour combined dealing with brusque security personnel at airports in Frankfurt, Washington, and New York on a recent trip to the U.S. The experience made her rethink future travel plans. Asks Kunkel: "Don't they want us to come and spend our money?"

Still, with the dollar depressed and many airlines and hotels still in discount mode, the appeal of a cheap trip to the U.S. can only increase.

By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles, with Brian Grow in Chicago, David Fairlamb in Frankfurt, Stanley Reed in London, and Michael Eidam in Atlanta

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