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Come visit, U.S. localities urge foreigners

Written by editor

LONDON – The weak dollar has made shopping sprees in America a bargain for many international visitors. Still, besides favored destinations like New York, many places in the United States are having a hard time attracting foreign tourists and their euros, pounds and yen.

LONDON – The weak dollar has made shopping sprees in America a bargain for many international visitors. Still, besides favored destinations like New York, many places in the United States are having a hard time attracting foreign tourists and their euros, pounds and yen.

The number of visitors from overseas – that is, excluding Canada and Mexico – rose 7 percent last year, to 23.2 million, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. But that figure remained well below the 26 million who entered the United States in 2000, before the post-9/11 security clampdown created new hassles for foreign travelers.

Some people in the travel industry and related businesses dependent on tourism say a lack of marketing is partly to blame. Unusually among large industrialized countries, the United States lacks a central tourism promotion agency to spread the word about its beaches, museums, mountains and shopping malls.

The Travel Industry Association in Washington is lobbying for legislation that would create such an organization, but Congress has yet to act on the proposed measure. A few years ago, lawmakers stumped up for a short-term ad campaign in Britain and Japan. They have also provided $4 million for a Web site,, that the industry group plans to set up this spring.

In the meantime, individual cities and states are stepping up their own promotional efforts globally.

Last month, the California Travel and Tourism Commission started advertising on television in Britain and Ireland, the first time it has run TV ads in Europe, according to Jonah Whitaker, marketing manager for the commission in London. California plans to spend $4.5 million on the campaign in those countries this year, he said.

The spot, which has also run in the United States, features Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, his wife, Maria Shriver, and Hollywood actors like Rob Lowe, along with athletes and other celebrities. It advertises the state’s laid-back image, boasting that work in California consists of “board meetings” in the Pacific surf, for example.

“When can you start?” Schwarzenegger asks in the ad, created by MeringCarson, an agency with offices in Sacramento, and Oceanside, California.

Britain is an important market for California, but the number of Britons who visited the state fell to 752,000 in 2006 from 789,000 the previous year. Whitaker said anecdotal evidence showed a revival last year, though numbers were not yet available.

One U.S. destination that has continued to attract growing numbers of travelers is New York City. The number of international visitors grew to 8.5 million last year from 7.3 million in 2006, according to NYC & Co., the city’s tourism promotion agency.

Still, New York is stepping up its pitch to foreign tourists. Last autumn it started its first international TV ads, running spots in Britain, Ireland and Spain, as part of a $30 million global marketing campaign.

The first ad shows visitors arriving in the city by taxi, attending a fashion show, riding the Staten Island Ferry and visiting the Lenox Lounge and the Harlem jazz club, among other things. The ad, created by the New York office of the agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, concludes with the tag line, “This is New York City.”

Another city that is increasing its international marketing activity is Las Vegas. Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of marketing at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said the organization planned to spend $8 million this year in Britain, Canada and Mexico, up from $5 million in 2007.

In Canada and Mexico, Las Vegas will run the same ads it has been using in the United States, based on the tag line, “What happens here stays here.” In Britain, the tourism authority is still conducting research to determine whether that theme would resonate with consumers.

After all, a main reason European visitors travel to the United States these days is to bring something back.