Foreign visitor spending in U.S. gets ugly

The U.S. Department of Commerce tells us that spending in the United States by foreign visitors fell 13 percent to $10.3 billion for the month of October – off $1.6 billion from October 2008. For the entire year, international visitor spending plunged 16 percent. Spending fell $18.6 billion. The good news is that the October decline is better than the year-to-date drop, which the international travel market may be on its way back.

Visitors to the United States spent $8 billion in October on goods and services related to tourism and travel, off 12 percent year-over-year. This money was spent on “food, lodging, recreation, gifts, entertainment, local transportation in the United States, and other items incidental to foreign travel,” according to a Commerce Department statement.

Passenger fare receipts – including air and other forms of international travel to the United States – fell close to 16 percent to $2.2 billion for the month of October. This is off more than $420 million compared to October 2008. October was the twelfth month in a row in which travel and tourism exports declined year-over-year.From January to October this year, foreign visitors dropped $100.9 billion getting to and hanging out in the United States. But, they 16 percent by which they trimmed their spending is not without similarity on our side of the equation. U.S. travel imports – i.e., those of us visiting other countries – reached a mere $81.6 billion, off around 13 percent ($12.1 billion). The result was a trade surplus of $19.2 billion for the first 10 months of 2009, representing a decline of 25 percent from the 2008 travel and tourism trade surplus.

The tanking of the travel market at the end of 2008 – following the near-collapse of the global financial services market in September – marked the end of more than five years of consecutive monthly growth in travel and tourism exports. For the past 12 months, the situation has been grim, but the pressure appears to be easing, at least slightly.

The broader economic climate seems to be improving slowly, but it remains vulnerable to many risks. Another financial time bomb could send everything off the rails again, so it’s certainly too soon to say the travel market is returning to normal. There are signs, however, that it could be headed in the right direction. Fast and easy answers, on the other hand, will remain elusive for a while.