Travel to U.S. off 5 percent in 2009

The numbers are finally in: international visitation to the United States reached 54.9 million last year, down 5 percent from 2008. The top markets, as usual, were Canada and Mexico, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Commerce, both of which posted year-over-year declines. South America, Oceana and Asia, meanwhile, put up the strongest growth in travel to the United States in the fourth quarter, buoyed largely by action from China and Brazil.

In December alone, 4.1 million people visited came here, a 5 percent increase from December 2008. This marked the third consecutive month of increased travel to the United States, though the entire fourth quarter of the year before was marred by the effects of the global financial crisis. For the fourth quarter of 2009, travel to the United States was up 2 percent, with 15 of the top 20 arrival markets showing growth. Travel from Canada was up 3 percent, with Mexico up 1 percent. Visitation from overseas markets gained 1 percent.For the entire year, only seven of the top 20 arrival markets showed year-over-year increases, with Brazil and Argentina hitting double-digit rates. The United Kingdom and Japan were among the markets with declines. Overall, the top 20 were responsible for 89 percent of all international arrivals to the United States, and the entire cohort was off 6 percent.

Spending, unfortunately, didn’t fare as well as traffic. Last year, visitors from outside the country dropped $121.1 billion, representing a decline of 15 percent year over year. In December, they spent $10.3 billion, off 8 percent from the prior December but at least showing that the trend is headed in the right direction (as the rate of decline was only half that for the year as a whole). December was the fourteenth consecutive month in which travel exports fell year over year.

The decline in tourist spending was likely influenced by several factors, from deals on airfare and hotels to general economic pressures that kept people from spending as much as they’d normally like.