Analysis: Key Facts About Inbound Tourism 2003

Posted April 2004

The Economic Engine
International travel is one of the largest exports for the United States, ranking ahead of agricultural goods and motor vehicles. It is the largest services sector export category, accounting for 27 percent of all services exports.

Total U.S. international travel receipts, including international passenger airfare payments made by non-resident visitors to U.S. carriers, reached almost $81 billion in 2003.

The United States has continued to produce a travel surplus, generating $4 billion in 2003. The surplus has been produced continuously since 1989, peaking at $26.3 billion in 1996. A surplus occurs when international visitors to the country spend more than U.S. residents who travel abroad.

Expenditures by international visitors from other nations in 2003 directly supported over one million jobs in the United States. Payroll revenues generated by international tourism were estimated at over $23 billion for 2003. International visitors generated tax revenues of over $13 billion in 2003.

On a per capita basis, overseas visitors (which exclude Canada and Mexico) spent almost eight times as much as their domestic U.S. counterparts for travel in this country in 2003.

2003 Visitation Levels
International visitors to the United States totaled 40.4 million in 2003, down 4 percent, or 1.5 million fewer travelers from the total arrivals reported in 2002. The decline in 2003 was the shallowest of the three straight years of declines in international visitation to the United States. Visitation to the U.S. set a record in 2000 at 50.9 million.

The United States’ largest source markets were Canada (31% of all visitors in 2003), Mexico (24%), U.K. (10%), Japan (8%), Germany (3%), France (2%), and Korea (2%). Five of these seven markets each generated over one million visitors to the U.S. Combined, these seven markets accounted for 79 percent of all 2003 international arrivals.

In 2003, the United States ranked third behind France and Spain for world international visitors for the third straight time. In terms of travel receipts (exports), the U.S. ranks first among worldwide destinations. The United States’ share of world travel receipts was 14 percent in 2002 (the 2003 figures are not yet available). Spending by international travelers to the United States, totaling $67 billion was double the level of spending in any other country.

While Canada and Mexico ranked first and second in terms of visitation for 2003, preliminary estimates show that for the first time, the United Kingdom was the number one generator of total travel exports for the country, accounting for 14 percent of the total. Japan followed in travel receipts with 12 percent of total receipts for the U.S., ahead of Canada (11%) and Mexico (8%).

Travel Behavior
Overseas travelers to the country were predominantly repeat visitors (78%), with one in five (22%) being first time visitors.

Over two-thirds (69%) of the overseas travelers visiting the U.S. in 2003 came for leisure purposes and/or to visit friends and relatives (VFR), while the balance came for business and convention purposes.

In 2003, the average overseas visitor’s length of stay in this country was just over 16 nights, four times longer than the average domestic trip.

The top states visited by overseas travelers in 2003 were: Florida, New York, California, Hawaii, and Nevada. These five states each hosted over 1 million visitors in 2003.

Favorite destinations for overseas travelers in 2003 were: New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, San Francisco, Honolulu, and Las Vegas. These seven cities each hosted over 1 million visitors in 2003.

Top Activities of overseas travelers in 2003 were: Shopping (87%), Dining in Restaurants (84%), Sightseeing in Cities (40%), Visiting Historical Places (31%), Amusement/Theme Parks (28%), Visiting Small Towns/Villages (27%), Water Sports/Sunbathing (26%), Touring the Countryside (22%), Cultural Heritage Sites (18%), Visiting National Parks (18%), and Visiting Art Galleries/Museums (18%).

Overseas travelers to the United States are very mobile. On average, in 2003, they visited almost 2 destinations. They also used taxis (39%), rented cars (31%), used company or private automobiles (30%), took a domestic flight (25%), used the city subway/bus (20%), took a bus between cities (11%), and used rail to see the country (9%).

Overseas travelers are far more inclined to stay at hotels/motels (77%) than are domestic travelers. In 2003, the average number of nights in a hotel/motel was 7.5. Spending on all lodging was the number one expense item for overseas travelers while in the country.

There were far more independent overseas travelers (82%) visiting the United States than visitors using a travel package (18%). Of the package travelers, the most frequent combination of components in the package was air and lodging.

Note: International travelers include all non-U.S. residents who visit the country.
Overseas excludes Canada and Mexico.

For more information on the international travel market to the United States, please visit the Office of Travel & Tourism Industries web site at:

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, ITA, Office of Travel & Tourism Industries & Bureau of Economic Analysis, April 2004