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International visitors buoy US tourism industry

Despite dreary economic times, a favorable exchange rate beckons foreign tourists to the majestic Grand Circle and beyond.

French tourist Simon Boulet, left, takes a photo of himself and his girlfriend, Estelle Lanoe, in front of the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee while visiting Los Angeles from Paris, Feb. 18, 2009. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Utah — Human voices echo among the spectacular salmon-colored hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, and they aren’t American. They are the few and the shrewd international travelers who have braved the worldwide recession to come and see the best of this country, and for that we are grateful.

Big white RV’s are the Trojan Horses of their exploration. Netherlanders Tilly and Peter Zwart started their retirement American-style. They abandoned a 30-year tradition of vacationing in Austria, flew to Denver (it was Tilly’s first time on a plane) and rented a motor home. Their first destination, Yellowstone National Park, welcomed them with an early snow. Although they were lured to the States by an invitation from relatives who immigrated more than a century ago, it was the exchange rate that made the length and ambition of their trip affordable.

“The first week, I could not believe it was so inexpensive,” Tilly said. “The dollar made it possible.”

She and her husband planned to stay four weeks and spend a total of $4,000. Before the recession overseas travelers spent an average of $4,500 each, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. As the exchange rate of the dollar to the euro hovers near a 14-month low — at about one euro per $1.50 — the U.S. is a bargain for Europeans. Although they are spending less than they used to, their business is essential to the major tourist areas.

Clay Gatchel, an assistant manager of Thousand Oaks RV Park near the stunning red cliffs of Capitol Reef in Southern Utah, estimated that foreigners have made up 60 percent of their business this summer. He, and his wife and colleague, Debbie, sought seasonal employment here after his construction work in Pacific City, Oregon, dried up.

“We get them from all over: the Falkland Islands, Israel, Germany, France, Italy and Iceland,” said Debbie Gatchel. “They fly into the States, rent a small RV and travel the Grand Circle.”

The Grand Circle describes the dense and dramatic series of national parks and monuments that spring from the Colorado Plateau. It is easy to drive from Zion National Park, to Bryce Canyon, to Capitol Reef, to Arches, Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon in just a matter of days. For many Europeans, the Grand Circle has become part of their Grand Tour, a tradition dating from the 1600s, in which the exploration of different lands and cultures becomes a treasured component a liberal education.