A federal effort to draw more foreign tourists to the United States had the desired effect over the summer.
Foreign visitors spent $41 billion traveling in the United States, or 4 percent more than they spent last summer, according to the International Trade Administration.
The agency wants to boost foreign visitors from 65 million visitors in 2012 to 100 million tourists by 2021, largely by speeding up the time it takes to obtain a travel visa.
In southern New Jersey, there are signs that foreign tourists are coming in stronger numbers.
“We’ve seen an increase in visitors from Canada and the United Kingdom,” said Sheila Lego, marketing director for the Cape May Bird Observatory.
The group held its annual Autumn Birding Festival this weekend at the Cape May Convention Center. This year, participants from 10 countries are attending, she said.
Foreign visitors are a valuable commodity in tourism. The average foreign tourist spends $4,000 during a typical visit to the United States, according to federal records.
“If you’re coming from Canada or Europe, you’re not coming for the weekend. They’re coming for at least a week and many for two or three weeks,” she said. “They’re coming from a long distance. They’re paying a lot for airfare. They want to make their time here worthwhile.”
Tracking foreign visitors to southern New Jersey is difficult since most tourists — including international visitors — arrive by car.
Atlantic City casinos regularly advertise in ethnic communities in Washington, Baltimore or New York. But the resort has not done as much to attract international attention, said Tony Rodio, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey.
“A lot of properties have Asian marketing teams that focus mostly on Asian nationals living in Philadelphia, Washington and New York,” said Rodio, president of Tropicana Casino and Resort.
“We’re interested in getting business from wherever. But our media campaign for ‘Do AC’ has been focused on the Northeast Corridor,” he said. “If we thought it was a viable revenue source for us, we certainly would go after it.”
The United States is a popular international destination, particularly among Canadian, Mexican, English and Japanese visitors — the nation’s top markets.
Canadians paid 430,500 overnight visits to New Jersey, where they spent $169 million in 2011, according to the Cape May County Department of Tourism. Canada is the top foreign market for both American and New Jersey tourism.
But the Cape May County Department of Tourism is working with New Jersey Audubon to entice more British visitors to visit New Jersey as well.
When the nonprofit group attends an annual convention called Birdfair in England in August, it will distribute Cape May County visitor guides and attraction brochures, said Diane Wieland, the county’s director of tourism.
“We try to stress the importance of the birding we offer here. Beyond the beach and Boardwalk, we have incredible nature,” she said.
And they stress to birders that their non-birding spouses or friends have good reason to visit as well, she said.
“There’s something for everyone to do. They can go to the beach, do some shopping, ride a bike, visit downtown Cape May. That’s very appealing. That is one of the reasons it truly makes it the perfect holiday spot for many people from the UK and Canada,” she said.
Tourism spending among foreign visitors is up 8 percent through August to $109 billion compared to the same period last year. By comparison, Americans spent $80 billion in travel abroad this year or 10 percent more than 2011.
“All of these numbers underscore the importance of the travel and tourism industry to the U.S. economy,” administration spokeswoman Lorri Crowley said in an email.
In resorts such as Cape May, it is not hard to find foreign tourists enjoying a fall afternoon.
Singapore residents Jen Fee Tan, Sueteng Yin, Jimmy Teo and his wife, Choo Teo, stopped at Cape May Point State Park on Tuesday during their vacation to New Jersey. So far this week, they have picked apples at an orchard outside Trenton, tasted fresh cranberries at a festival in Burlington County and drove around Atlantic City.
The rest of their itinerary includes a trip to see fall foliage in the Delaware Water Gap and a visit to Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange.
Choo Teo particularly enjoyed the ripe cranberries fresh from the fall harvest.
“We eat dried cranberries every day at home,” she said. “It was eye-opening to see how they’re grown.”
She said they researched New Jersey’s attractions over the Internet. The selling point? The state’s fall colors — a phenomenon not observed in the tropics, they said.
“We heard it was really beautiful in October,” she said.
While they visited Atlantic City, they did not gamble, even though casinos back home charge a steep admission fee to residents. Instead, they took pictures of the Absecon Lighthouse.
“We didn’t have the energy to climb up it,” Jen Fee Tan said.
They were taken aback by the large quantities of everything offered at local supermarkets — from the gallons of milk to candy bars that are super-size by Singapore standards.
“We just wanted to buy everything to take back home,” Choo Teo said. “But of course, we can’t.”
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