The U.S. continues to be a hot destination for big-spending tourists, setting a new record of $168.1 billion in foreign visitor spending in 2012.
The country last year welcomed 66 million foreign visitors, whose spending represents a 10% increase over 2011, said Rebecca Blank, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The greatest increase in visitors and spending came from countries with a burgeoning middle class, including China, Brazil and India.
Spending by foreign tourists has been on the rise for the last three years, with tourist hubs such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York and San Francisco reaping much of the spending, Blank said.
"The coasts that are close to Asia and South America will see the notable effects," she said.
The federal government and the tourism industry have been paying special attention to foreign overseas tourists because they typically stay longer and spend more than visitors from Mexico or Canada.
Long-haul foreign visitors spend an average of $4,000 per visit, while visitors from Mexico and Canada — although they represent the greatest number of foreign tourists — spend less than $1,000 per visit, according to federal reports.
Visitor numbers from Europe — once the source of most of the U.S. tourism spending — have been dropping in recent years, as Europeans struggle with economic hardships. But the U.S. Department of Commerce predicts continued growth in tourists from Brazil (274% by 2016), China (135%) and India (50%).
To promote more foreign visitors, the Obama administration and leaders of the travel industry launched in 2011 a public-private partnership to promote the U.S. in foreign countries. The campaign, known as Brand USA, is funded by fees charged to visitors applying for visas and contributions from private firms.
The administration has also pushed the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to shorten the wait time for visa interviews and expanded a program to speed low-risk visitors through expedited security lines at major airports.
The number of international visitors rose to 62.3 million in 2011, up from 59.7 million in 2010, according to the Department of Commerce. President Obama has set a goal of welcoming 100 million foreign visitors by 2021.
"Our projection is that the travel and tourism industries are going to create over 1 million jobs in the next decade," Blank said.