Foreigners are still spending less in the U.S.

Visitors from outside the United States came in and spent $9.9 billion in August … which sounds like a lot. Unfortunately, it’s down 21 percent from what they spent in August 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, as the travel slump continues to clamp wallets shut. The good news, though, is that spending by foreign visitors to the United States edged 1 percent higher from July.

Spending by visitors to the United States has fallen every month since 2008, but the really severe declines began in May. Year-over-year drops have been 20 percent or worse every month since then: -23 percent in May, -22 percent in June and July and -21 percent in August.

Most of the money came from “travel receipts,” which the Commerce Department defines as just about everything except the planes, trains, boats and so on that take travelers into and out of the country. This was good for $7.8 billion in August and includes food, lodging, gives and entertainment, among other categories. “Passenger fare receipts,” the travel money, brought $2.1 billion into the U.S. economy in August — off $700 million from the previous August.

So far this year, foreign visitors have poured $79.4 billion into the U.S. travel and tourism industry, which is $16.4 billion less than we saw at this point in 2008 (a decline of 17 percent).

In an unsurprising application of the “golden rule” — screw unto others, as they screw unto you — American travelers haven’t been spending as much abroad, either. Those of us heading out of the country this year have only spent $65.9 billion so far, down 12 percent ($9.3 billion) from last year. The result is a $13.5 billion trade surplus, which is $7.1 billion less favorable than it was at this time last year.

With the next monthly report from the Commerce Department, the numbers should start to change a bit — in fact, they should start to look better. Don’t be deceived by this subtle shift, which will gain momentum next year. After Septmeber, and the worldwide financial crisis, the travel industry was battered. So, as we cross the September threshold, we’ll be comparing current results to lower benchmarks. But, it will be nice to see something that at least looks positive.