The largest invasion of foreigners in American history is unfolding across the United States, welcomed almost everywhere. The invaders are tourists, a record 46.5 million of whom are expected this year, and should spend about $76.9 billion while here -- another record.
The estimates come from the U.S. Travel Data Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that tracks the travel industry.
And for the first time, according to the Commerce Department, the total number of overseas visitors to the United States -- an estimated 19.5 million from every part of the world except North America -- will exceed the total visitors from Canada, and by a sizable margin of 1 million.
The result is not only a huge multicultural interchange; it is also an economic bonanza at a time that the Travel Industry Association predicts domestic travel will be flat for the rest of the decade
Last week, the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand said that almost one of every 10 hotel rooms in the United States each night is rented to a visitor from overseas and projected that the incidence would rise to almost one in seven by 1995.
Even bad news -- the murders of tourists in Miami and the terrorist bombing of New York's World Trade Center -- has not stemmed the flow. While foreigners may have changed itineraries to avoid what they consider trouble spots, travel industry officials say, they are not staying away from the United States.
The size of the influx is driven in part by the strength of the Japanese yen, British pound, German mark and other foreign currencies relative to the dollar, making the United States an inexpensive destination.
Visitors are also responding to the growing numbers of promotions in their countries from American tour operators, airlines and hotels. Individual states and cities are also opening sales and tourist offices abroad.
The Nashville airport and the Memphis and Nashville convention and visitors bureaus in Tennessee, for example, recently joined the privately owned Opryland Hotel in Nashville and Graceland, Elvis Presley's home in Memphis, in opening a London office to attract British tourists.
All this effort has been paying dividends for several years. The number of foreign visitors has exceeded the previous year's total each year since the late 1980s, and a further gain is being projected for next year as well.
Many foreign visitors need little urging, however. They are here on return trips, intent on catching up on what they missed.
"The last time we were here, we drove 5,000 miles in three weeks, but we didn't get to the West," said Roberta Smithies of London, speaking recently from Buffalo Bill's Museum in North Platte, Neb.
This time she and a friend are spending most of their three weeks in Nebraska, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
"We saw all the John Wayne movies," she said, "and when people ask why we came here, we tell them: When you think of America, you think of the West."
In recent days many Italian tourists have been visiting Niagara Falls, and Spanish tourists have panned for gold in Dahlonega, Ga., a tiny town near the Appalachian Trail.
Tourists from as far away as Malaysia recently turned up at Graceland, while tourists from more than 30 countries have journeyed to Hope, Ark., to see the boyhood homes of President Clinton.