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The number of international visitors to the United States is starting to rise again this year after plummeting following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
During the first six months of this year, the number of visitors increased by 16% and the number of visas for visits rose 14%, according to U.S. government statistics. International spending in the U.S. has also increased for the first time since 9/11 and is projected to rise 7% to $69.4 billion this year.
Even the number of visitors from Middle Eastern countries, which experienced some of the steepest declines, have begun inching up. But their numbers remain far below 2000 levels as many Middle Easterners have stopped investing, visiting and studying here because of what they perceive as an unwelcoming atmosphere.
California, which attracts more foreign visitors than any other state except Florida, is reaping the benefits of the turnabout. The number of overseas visitors to California increased 21% during the first six months of this year, led by travelers from Japan and Australia.
According to the Travel Industries Association of America, international spending in California had declined from $15.1 billion in 2000 to $10.2 billion in 2002, while jobs generated by foreign travel and tourism had also decreased.
But the past year has seen a reversal of that trend. In Beverly Hills, for example, city officials say hotel occupancy rates are up, and a spokesman for high-end fashion designer Versace reports a “significant increase” in foreign tourists —particularly from the Mideast, Russia and Eastern Europe — in the last six months.
The increasing number of foreign visitors are credited in part to improved federal visa review procedures, less fear among travelers of a terrorist attack, more confidence in airport security and a weaker U.S. dollar, which makes a visit to this country more affordable.
Anxiety over other factors that have discouraged travel, including the Iraq war and a global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is also fading, travel experts say.
Despite the early signs of improvement in foreign visitor levels, significant concerns remain among business leaders, economists and others about the mounting costs associated with the stepped-up U.S. security and border controls.
Many had fretted that the last three years have cost the United States both goodwill and hard cash, evident in declines in tourist spending, foreign investment and, on some college campuses, foreign student enrollment.
According to the U.S. Commerce Department, international spending in the United States dropped from $82.4 billion in 2000 to $65.1 billion in 2003. Direct foreign investment plunged from $314 billion in 2000 to $29.7 billion in 2003.
And the number of overseas visitors admitted as students dropped by 8.5% to 474,920 between 2001 and 2003.
Travelers from Arab and Islamic nations, particularly those from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, had registered among the steepest declines in visits to the United States.
But the U.S. government’s latest statistics show that visitors from Middle Eastern countries are starting to return, registering a 14% rise during the first six months of this year over the same period last year.
Visitors from Saudi Arabia had declined by 73% between 2001 and 2003, for example, but increased by 5.5% during the January-to-June period this year.