Originally created 10/25/98

Foreigners make shopping part of their U.S. vacation



NEW YORK -- Marco Bassano's day started on a heavenly note.

"I'm in paradise," the Italian tourist crooned, as he examined the Sony digital camera just purchased from a video store in Times Square. "It's almost half the price you'd pay for it in Europe. What a bargain!"

Lured by the sheer volume of retail goods and bargain prices, foreign visitors like Mr. Bassano increasingly are going on shopping expeditions during vacations in the United States.

And the Big Apple has been a top destination, along with Los Angeles and Miami. Las Vegas, a gambling haven, is also becoming a popular shopping spot.

Foreign tourists have been spending billions of dollars at American shops for items like sports equipment, leather goods, designer clothing and electronics. Even a strong U.S. dollar throughout most of the year hasn't been an impediment.

"As a shopping foreign tourist, I can say there's a lot more variety, better service and it's cheaper than in other parts of the world," said Mr. Bassano, a 38-year-old physician from Rome, during a recent vacation.

He said he paid around $400 for the digital camera. The same item would sell for the equivalent of around $700 in Italy and around $850 in Japan.

The New York City Convention and Visitors Bureau says that in 1995, the most recent year for which figures are available, 5.4 million international visitors spent $4.7 billion in New York. Over a quarter of that amount goes for retail goods.

More than 6 million international visitors are expected to visit New York in 1998, and spending for consumer goods should jump as well, the bureau said.

Canadians top the list of foreign visitors to the city, followed by the British, German, Japanese, Brazilians, and French, it said.

Bloomingdale's department store claims it's the third-largest tourist attraction after the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.

As the number of visitors increase, tour organizers in New York and elsewhere around the country have been pushing for bigger shares of the vacation market, many on Internet Web sites. Shop New York Tours, for example, offered $25-a-day packages over the summer in which visitors were shuttled by bus to selected stores.

Store managers and salespeople agree the lure of bargains can prove irresistible to foreigners.

At Structure, an apparel chain store across from the Empire State Building, Masashi Nakamura bought two cotton shirts at the "buy one, get one free" day's discount, paying $24.99 for both.

"This stuff is made in Hong Kong. It's good quality," the Japanese tourist said.

Structure salesman Arsenio Amadis says New York has a special image because of the huge volume of merchandise on the market and the way store shelves display new goods -- many at a discount -- almost every week.

"When it comes to chasing after bargains this city has no peer," he said.

Economists also point to the Americans' consumer-oriented culture and to the fact that consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the nation's overall economic activity.