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Overseas visitors up slightly, spending slightly down in Philly last year

Philadelphia hosted 0.9 percent more international travelers last year, helped by more visitors from China and the Asia Pacific region.

Overseas visitors to Philadelphia increased last year, helped by more tourists from China and Asia including India.
Overseas visitors to Philadelphia increased last year, helped by more tourists from China and Asia including India.Read moreMichael Bryant / Staff Photographer

The number of overseas visitors to Philadelphia notched up 0.9 percent in 2016, helped by more travelers from China and India even as the strong U.S. dollar made travel to the United States more expensive.

Last year, 644,200 international travelers came to Philadelphia, according to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB), based on data from Tourism Economics in Wayne. About 638,000 foreign visitors came in 2015.

The top five countries for international travelers were the United Kingdom, China, Germany, India, and France. The number of visitors from the U.K. rose 2 percent, while the biggest growth came from Asia:  China was up 12.4 percent with 66,581 visitors in 2016 from 59,229 in 2015, while India increased 4.2 percent, with 53,811 travelers last year vs. 51,667 in 2015. China surpassed Germany, which had 62,441 visitors in 2015, and 60,198 last year.

"The strong dollar had an impact and Brexit had an impact, and will continue to have," said Erik Evjen, PHLCVB's director of research. "It's reflected in the overseas visitor spending, which was $593 million in 2016, compared to $595 million in 2015.

"We're thrilled to see a slight increase in visitors, especially when the country as a whole had such a hard time last year," he said. Nationally, overseas visitors decreased 2 percent in 2016.

For the second year, the PHLCVB used Tourism Economics data that estimates trends using 10 sources including the U.S. Commerce Department, airline bookings, and hotel stays.

By contrast, the Commerce Department Office of Travel and Tourism surveys travelers leaving the country about where they went. On that basis, the department estimated an 8 percent decrease in overseas visitors in 2016, excluding Canada and Mexico.

The disparity is that the Commerce Department estimated 680,000 overseas visitors in 2016, while Tourism Economics said the number was only 638,000. The Philadelphia CVB reported the lower 638,000 number last year, which represented a 3 percent tourism boost over 620,000 visitors in 2014.

"In the end, the numbers are actually very similar in 2016, but less volatile on the way there," said Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics.

Philadelphia ranks 19th among the 25 most popular U.S. cities for overseas visitors, according to the Commerce Department. Pennsylvania ranked 12th among the most visited states with 974,000 overseas travelers, down 5 percent from 1 million in 2015.

The top destination was New York City, with 9.8 million visitors, followed by Miami, with 5.4 million, and Los Angeles, with 4.9 million international visitors, the Commerce Department said.

Orlando took a 5 percent hit in attracting travelers from abroad, and overseas visitors were down 10 percent in Chicago, down 13 percent in Atlanta, and down 16 percent in Seattle in 2016.

"The strong dollar really had an impact," said a Commerce official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the government. "It was far more expensive to come to the USA. Hotel prices held their own all year, so they weren't getting the bargains on the hotels. Airfares were decent, but not enough to offset the strong U.S. dollar."

Also contributing to fewer overseas visitors in 2016 was high unemployment in some European countries, and confusion caused by Brexit, the vote by U.K residents to leave the European Union. "U.K. travel to the United States was down" but visitors from Britain remained the largest overseas tourists group.

The flow of tourists to the U.S. through May declined 2.8 percent compared to the same period last year including international visitors from Canada and Mexico, the Commerce Department said. Visitors from Mexico were down 6.1 percent, while Canadian travel was up 4.7 percent. Whether the decrease was an effect of President Trump's proposed travel ban on visitors from six majority-Muslim countries or threats of an expanded wall along the Mexican border is unclear.

"We continued to see strong growth from the Asia region, despite not having a direct flight there," said Evjen. "China, South Korea, India, and other countries in the Asia Pacific region continued to bring visitors here. A lot of the growth we saw came from that region."