Yoshiko Goto stood in awe before a Cezanne at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The masterpiece reminded her of images she had seen in textbooks as a child in her native Japan.
"I didn't expect to see the volume of great works here," Goto, 69, a retiree from Kanagawa, Japan, said softly in Japanese as her husband, Michihiro, 74, snapped pictures.
The Gotos visited Philadelphia for the first time this month during a four-stop East Coast tour of museums - and became part of an increasingly larger wave of foreign travelers arriving in the city.
Thanks to aggressive overseas marketing by the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau; an increase in tourist attractions with global appeal, such as blockbuster exhibits at the Art Museum; and partnerships with Amtrak and bus operators in New York City, Philadelphia continues to gain in international tourism.
The city hosted a record-breaking 710,000 international visitors in 2008, an increase of more than 150,000 from the previous year. That 29 percent increase was the largest of any city among the top 20 most visited in the United States, according to the Commerce Department, and moved Philadelphia from 12th to 11th place among those destinations.
This year, Philadelphia is on a pace to buck a national trend.
Overall, international visits to the United States were down about 9 percent through August, according to the Commerce Department. Only Philadelphia and Las Vegas were on track to remain flat or lure more international visitors than in 2008. (The department's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries will release numbers for all of 2009 in May.)
Even New York City, the top draw among foreign travelers to the United States, is forecasting a dip of up to 5 percent in domestic and international visits this year, according to that city's tourism agency. Miami was down 2.5 percent for the first nine months of this year, its convention and visitors bureau said.
"We have no indicators showing we are down like most of the other cities," said Fritz Smith, vice president of tourism for the Convention and Visitors Bureau here. "All indicators show we are in positive territory."
Most U.S. cities are down in the number of non-U.S. residents entering the country at their airports, according to the Commerce Department, but Philadelphia International was up 6 percent from a year ago.
International visits to the Independence Visitor Center at Sixth and Market Streets, typically the first stop for information, have grown dramatically since 2007. In the first quarter of that year, 36,997 foreigners visited, center statistics show. In the second quarter of this year, the number was 208,329.
After a decline in international overnight stays in the first quarter of this year, Center City hoteliers saw stabilized rates in the second and third quarters. Many say they have pulled even to 2008 year-to-date figures, and could end up with a small increase for 2009.
Though its arsenal of historical and cultural offerings has grown this decade to lure more travelers, Philadelphia has also gotten a boost from new direct flights to and from cities such as Tel Aviv, Israel, and Madrid and Barcelona, Spain.
Britain and Germany remain the city's two biggest feeder markets, but visitors from Spain and Italy make up the two fastest-growing groups, based on an October survey by the Independence Visitor Center and the number of non-U.S. resident arrivals at the airport.
More than 25 percent of international visitors to the United States go to New York City, which attracts about two million more than the No. 2 destination, Miami, said the Convention and Visitors Bureau's Smith, who oversees international consumer marketing.
This year, he said, the bureau partnered with Amtrak, which for the first time has begun paying commissions to travel agents and tour operators internationally. That has provided a new incentive to agents and wholesalers to sell train tickets to foreign customers traveling to the United States.
"We've been very proactive . . . telling them that if they are in New York, then they need to make Philly a part of their experience," he said. "What happens in December is that they come down from Manhattan."
The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. also makes a push at this time of year. Every December since 2005, the agency has purchased a 100-foot banner at Madison Square Garden to promote travel here.
"It's been a strong year for international tourism," said Mark Beyerle, president of Specialty Tours & Events in Center City, which provides charter-bus tours for groups and conventions. "We had anticipated a strong year and landed accordingly. It came to fruition.
"There's been no negative impact as a result of the economy. In particular, conventions with a major international appeal have been drawing strong."
Among such gatherings this year were the American Society of Nephrology, which had about 50 percent international attendees; the American College of Rheumatology (52 percent); and the American Society of Microbiology (25 percent).
For Talia Golan, 35, who lives near Tel Aviv, the direct flights from Israel to Philadelphia that US Airways began offering in early July made coming here for a medical conference this month quite easy.
"It's great," said Golan, who arrived with colleagues Raanan Berger, 44, and Michelle Stein, 36, both from Tel Aviv.
On their fourth and final day in Philadelphia, the trio hit the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Reading Terminal Market for lunch, and the Art Museum. They took a 12-hour direct flight home that evening.
The weak dollar encouraged Margaret and Don Waldon to take their first trip from British Columbia to Philadelphia via Bethlehem, Pa., this month.
"We've heard about the history, we've read about it, and now we're immersed in it," said Don Waldon, 77, as they perused exhibits at the Independence Visitor Center.
Canadians remain his firm's strongest international market, said Michael Walsh, vice president of Centipede Tours, which provides hotels, transportation, and more to groups and conventions.
"But in the last three or four years, we've noticed a spike among visitors from the U.K. and France," he said.
Beyerle, of Specialty Tours, has his own theory of why Philadelphia is suddenly a hot spot among foreigners:
"We are new. They've been to New York, Orlando, and Vegas. They have seen our message long enough that they are finally reacting to it, and thinking, 'Let's do Philadelphia this time.' "