WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of foreign visitors to the United States set a record in 2007 for the first time since before the September 11 attacks on the United States, the U.S. Commerce Department said on Monday.
Foreign visitor numbers totaled 56.7 million, surpassing the previous record of 51.2 million set in 2000, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said.
“At a time when our economy is sluggish in other parts, such as the housing market, it’s great to have a bright spot like tourism that is adding growth and energy and employment to our economy,” Gutierrez said.
Foreign visitors also spent a record $122.7 billion in the United States last year, a rise of more than 50 percent from a low set in 2003 in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Gutierrez said.
A sharp drop in the dollar relative to many foreign currencies has made the United States a more attractive tourist destination, but most of the increase was among visitors from North American neighbors Canada and Mexico.
“America is the world travel bargain, and yet 2 million fewer (overseas) travelers visited the United States in 2007 than in 2000,” Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association, said in a statement.
The group has been lobbying for legislation that would impose a fee on foreign visitors to pay for a program to promote tourism in the United States, similar to ones conducted by many other countries.
The Bush administration does not believe that is a job for government, but is working to make it easier for foreign travelers to obtain visas and move more quickly through customs once they arrive, Gutierrez said.
“In terms of advertising and promotion, we believe that is a private sector role,” Gutierrez said.
The 56.7 million foreigners who visited the United States last year included 17.7 million from Canada, 15.1 million from Mexico and 23.9 million from overseas countries.
Visitor numbers from Italy, Spain, Ireland, Sweden, China, South Korea and Australia all set records in 2007, while tourism from Germany, France, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Central America and the Middle East showed strong growth.
There was a 4 percent decline in visits from Japan, which accounts for 55 percent of all Asian travelers to the United States, the Commerce Department said.
Editing by Eric Walsh