Originally created 09/25/00

Strong dollar good for Americans



SYDNEY - Australians have bemoaned their floundering currency for weeks now, but American tourists find nothing but bargains everywhere they look.

On Friday, the Australian dollar sunk to .54 cents in U.S. currency. But the weak Aussie dollar hasn't spelled total disaster for retailers, who report slightly higher sales than officials modest pre-Olympic estimates.

"We are seeing some very strong sales," said Bill Healey, executive director of the New South Whales division of the Australian Retailers Association. "I think people, the Americans in particular, are having a time getting some bargains."

Healey said retailers learned from the Atlanta games that the Olympics don't necessarily mean big spending. Tourists traditionally attend competitions, buy a few Olympic souvenirs and head back to hotels to relax. Even restaurants have reported lower than expected sales during previous Olympic events.

"The Olympics themselves just aren't generators of great retail sales," he said. "We made very conservative estimates because the bulk of those here at the games are local or domestic visitors who just aren't purchasing a lot. International guests make up a very small portion of the visitors."

Americans find themselves snatching up not only Olympic paraphernalia, but also buying brand name merchandise they would normally buy in the states.

"My money is going a long way," said Sam Giancarlo, of Houston. "I've been going to five star restaurants and paying about 75 percent of what I'd pay at home. This is like visiting a first-world country with a third-world currency."

He's purchased a new camera, something he said he could have waited to buy but couldn't resist the price - about one-third less than he'd seen it advertised at home.

"I'm going in search of some opal jewelry, too, I think," he said.

Travelers said the weak Australian dollar has been a nice break, seeing as many spent $1,500 in for just a plane ticket to Sydney.

"We've done tours, gone shopping, eaten out. We've done it all," said Peggy Watson, as she waited for her turn inside the Olympic Superstore souvenir shop. "It's been wonderful to have been here for a week, only spent $200 and been able to do whatever we wanted."

Watson, of Kansas City, Mo., made the trip down under with three friends from college. She said each time they've visited a bank, it's been reminiscent of visiting a casino.

"It's just like doubling your money," she said, giggling. "It's really unbelievable. I'm off to get an opal, next."

Heading in to the second week of Olympic tourists giddy from their bulging wallets, retailers have already begun trying to squeeze more out of their patrons.

Retail officials said it is possible stores could raise prices to compensate for the low Aussie dollar, and some visitors have noticed a steady rise in the cost of merchandise.

"There are some things, like T-shirts, that were $15 Australian dollars when I got here before the games," said Giancarlo. "Now they're going for $25 in some places. I think the locals are getting wise."

Financial experts predict it could be several more weeks for the local currency to regain it's value, so American visitors will likely enjoy having more money to spend until long after the games end. In fact, retail officials said Sydney likely will surpass its modest estimate of retail sales for the Olympic Games.

"This is definitely good for Sydney," Healey said. "No matter how you look at it, Sydney stands to gain a lot, even after the games are over."