US tourist industry gets rare good news: international travel is looking up

The beleaguered US tourist industry had some good news for a change: The US is among the top five international destinations for tourism development, and international visitors coming here will exceed pre-September 11 levels for the first time.

The US was ranked fifth among most attractive environments for developing the travel and tourism industry, according to rankings from the first-ever Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report.

The US followed Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Iceland in the report done in cooperation with international strategy and technology consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton and other partners.

The rankings, covering 124 countries, are based on a measurement of 52 variables that impact a country's appeal in developing travel and tourism, including the statutory regulatory framework, health and safety, infrastructure, local price levels, and aspects relating to the environment and culture.

In other good news, the number of international tourists visiting the US should exceed pre-September levels this year for the first time since the terrorist attacks, predicted US Commerce Secretary Carlos Guiterrez.

The US collected a record $107.4 billion in travel receipts in 2006, a 5% increase from the previous year. An estimated 51.1 million people from other countries visited the US in 2006, just under the 51.2 million America hosted in 2000 and up 1.9 million from 2005.

Overseas tourism hit a two-year freefall in 2002 and 2003 after the attacks in 2001. The number of international tourists fell 19% from 2000 to 2003.

"We have recovered from that, and it's just a great achievement that 2006 actually exceeded the pre-9/11 numbers (in receipts)," Gutierrez said in a telephone interview with the AP.

But the big increases aren't happening everywhere -- including Florida.

The state saw a slight drop in overseas visitors in 2006 from the previous year, from 4.4 million in 2005 to 4.3 million last year. In addition, state officials are expecting 2006 data to show a nearly 5% drop in visitors from the United Kingdom, the state's No. 2 source of international tourists.

Long term, the Commerce Department forecast a 21% increase at the national level in foreign visitors over the next five years. The prediction: the US will have 61.6 million visitors in 2011. Particularly sharp growth is expected from Brazil, China and India.

Nine countries, according to the department, sent more tourists to the US in 2006 than they ever had before: Mexico, South Korea, Australia, Spain, Ireland, India, China, Denmark and the Dominican Republic.

The majority of U.S. visitors 57% -- came from Canada and Mexico.

The Booz Allen report was not all positive for the US, however.

It noted, for example, that the US ranked 99th out of 124 countries in price competitiveness.

Said Justin Zubrod, vice president at Booz Allen:

"The governments of other industrialized nations, especially European ones, have made travel and tourism a priority in terms of policies and regulations concerning foreign travelers. The U.S. needs to keep up, or risk losing some of its competitive edge." Report by David Wilkening