|By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 22, 2012--REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- A record number of foreign visitors helped boost overall tourism spending in the U.S. last year 8.1% to $1.2 trillion, the Commerce Department said.
Last year's 62.3 million foreign visitors marked an increase of 4% from the previous year. Foreign tourists spent a record $153 billion here, much of it in the last three months of the year, according to new Commerce data Wednesday.
American travelers account for the vast majority of tourism spending in the country. But Commerce Secretary John Bryson touted the increase in foreign visitors, which he said makes travel and tourism the nation's top service export.
"Every year, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world visit America, and the more visitors we have, the more Americans we get back to work," Bryson said.
His agency estimated that travel spending supported 7.6 million U.S. jobs last year. In January, President Obama announced new steps to increase tourism in the U.S.
Canada and Mexico sent the most visitors to the U.S. last year. Visits from Canadians were up 5% to an all-time high of 21 million, the Commerce Department said. International visits from Mexico were flat last year at 13.4 million, but tourists traveling to the U.S. from overseas increased 6% to nearly 27.9 million.
Inflation was a big driver in greater tourism spending, at least for the kinds of items and amenities visitors use most, such as airlines, accommodations, food and drink. Taking into account those higher prices, spending on tourism increased 3.5% last year, the Commerce Department said.
Real spending on travel and tourism increased at a 4.6% annualized rate for the fourth quarter, up significantly from a 2.6% annualized rate for the year-earlier quarter.
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