International visitors buoy US tourism industry

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.

Each journey is determined by desire. Sebastien and Martine Drillon, newlyweds from Strasbourg, France, decided to spend part of their honeymoon in Death Valley National Park and to drop by the ghost town of Bodie, California, in order to satisfy Sebastien’s long-held desire to roam the landscape of the old Westerns.

Overseas tourists practically evaporated after 9/11, when investigators discovered that some of the hijackers had overstayed their visas. Now with the recession, even Americans are traveling less inside the country. Domestic tourism declined nearly 9 percent in the first half of this year, but international tourism was down by just 6 percent.

“The economy has been so bad that [Americans] cut back on vacations,” said Susan Heaton, operations manager of the Boulder Mountain Lodge, near The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. “But the Europeans have helped even it out.”

From the ebullient short-order cook at the Galaxy Diner in Hatch, who loudly greets every stranger, to the patient cashier at Ruby’s Inn in Bryce, who explains the difference between a quarter and a dime to an Italian, to the copies of “The Book of Mormon” translated into French and German for guests of a rental cabin in Torrey, Utahans are especially grateful to have the internationals visit this year.

But it’s about more than money. As I join the Peruvians, French and Italians in the Zion National Park visitor center to learn the traditions of the Ancient Puebloans, some of the oldest inhabitants of North America, many of whose descendants still live on reservations throughout the Southwest, we all gain a different perspective of this land. It is not the America seen at the end of the barrel of an Abrams tank, or the opulent commercial tableau portrayed in many movies. Instead, it is a rare and special landscape that existed well before our brief lifetimes, a sacred earth that continues to sustain an abundance of life because it has been respected.

Mike Roberts, 76, and Beryl Stephens, 83, arranged for a Navajo guide to take them on an eight-hour jeep ride through Monument Valley to Hunt’s Mesa, and they saw virtually no one else there. Roberts, who is from England, is on his 20th trip to the U.S. He describes his frequent returns as both a “thrill and an obsession.” Drawn by the challenge of reaching nature’s most dramatic spectacles, he would have come no matter what the exchange rate.

The U.S. House and Senate have passed the Travel Promotion Act of 2009 to encourage more overseas visitors to come here. It would authorize millions to be spent advertising visa processes and American tourism abroad. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next decade, the bill would reduce the deficit by $425 million and increase revenues by $135 million.

It’s easy to understand how the simplest advertising overseas — showing photographs of America’s natural wonders — would create a powerful draw. Inge Arenshorst, 28, from Holland, said she had been vacationing in Asia until a friend shared some snapshots of Bryce Canyon.

“I said, ‘I have to go here,’” she said. She hopes to spend just $2,000 on her U.S. vacation, but it could be more since lodging is more expensive than she anticipated, and she splurged on a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “I feel like doing everything possible because I probably will not come back soon.”