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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.

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.”