For foreign tourists, U.S. is Filene's Basement

Time Square now a bargain for European shoppers
Time Square now a bargain for European shoppers Anne Chalfant / Contra Costa Times / MCT

WASHINGTON — The shoe's on the other foot now.

For years, American tourists plundered Europe's shops with strong dollars and hauled home bargains.

Now, foreign visitors bearing Euros and other robust currencies shop giddily in America, feasting on iPods and other electronics, U.S. fashions, books and other sweet deals.

"I come with an empty suitcase and go home with a full one," said Macy's-bound visitor Wendy Brady, 57, professor of knowledge at Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia.

"Last time I went to one of your shoe stores," she said with a guilty smile, "I came away with 20 pairs."

Why? "American designers produce THE most comfortable shoes."

There are millions of foreign shoppers like Brady around these days. Literally. That's the silver lining of the decline in the dollar's value that's made travel to Europe or even Canada prohibitively expensive to many Americans.

According to the Commerce Department's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, the number of foreigners visiting the U.S. reached nearly 57 million in 2007, up from 41 million in 2003.

They spent $122 billion last year, compared to $80 billion in 2003.

Visitors felt only a little pain from that huge increase, however. The reason is the shifting balance of exchange rates. In June 2003, a Euro sold for $1.17. Today a Euro sells for about $1.56. The same trend applies to the Canadian dollar and many other currencies.

"My relatives visiting from Italy are very happy with the exchange rate," said Carlo Aalst, press officer at the Italian Embassy. "They are living very well when they visit, going shopping, eating at nice restaurants, and even visiting Las Vegas."

The weak dollar helps sales for U.S. retailers like Arthur Griffith, who owns a Washington boutique called Barami that draws a lot of foreign clients.

"My European customers tell me how much cheaper it is to shop here," Griffith said. "Folks used to go to Europe to shop, but now Europeans are coming here."

Iconic U.S. brand names like DKNY, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are gaining, too.

So are Apple's iPods, which are far cheaper in the United States. According to Apple's site, an iPod Classic that costs $249 here retails for $360 in France. A MacBook costs $500 less here than in Germany.

Business is brisk, too, at Dulles International Airport's Duty Free store, last chance for foreigners to bargain shop.

"These visitors spend a lot," said manager Elena Poletajeva. "They think the prices of all our products are terrific."

On the other hand, "European travel is being very badly affected," said Christine Wei, a travel agent with Cross Culture Travel in Boston. "Americans are not going to Europe for personal travel. They are going places where the dollar is strong, like South America and Asia."

Claude Borrel, a Frenchman now living in Boston and paid in dollars, feels the pain. "We are finding it much harder to travel back to France," he said. "It is much more expensive."


More on trends in foreign tourism and spending.