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European tourists flock to Florida as dollar slides

Reeling from a real-estate collapse and battered by hurricanes, Floridians can at least take heart from one economic bright spot: European tourists are coming to spend, spend, spend.

As the dollar sinks against the euro, more and more European travellers are arriving on Florida shores.

And whether it’s a mojito at a swanky South Beach club, a swim with dolphins in the Keys, or a spin around a massive retail mall, they’re finding their money stretches further.

”What we see is Europeans taking even short holidays to get some sun and take advantage of the great value,” says Bud Nocera, president of Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion agency. ”People are actually coming over without any luggage at all, and they not only buy clothes, but the suitcases to take it home in. That gives you an idea what a great bargain it is.”

Visit Florida estimates there were 931 000 overseas visitors to Florida in the first quarter, most of them from Europe. That marked a 2% increase over the same period last year — not a huge rise, but a significant one considering tourism is the state’s biggest money maker.

In 2007, some counties saw increases of nearly 6%, while domestic tourism also grew.

What’s more, Nocera says visitors from Germany, France and beyond are taking advantage of the exchange rate and buying everything from jeans to jets during their stay, pumping more money into the troubled economy.

”This time we are spending. We don’t care,” jokes Lars Binckebanck, a German who comes to the United States once a year with his family.

This summer, they rented an RV and made it their mission to visit at least half of the ”top 10” beaches along Florida coastlines.

”We’ve been to Disney World, we’ve bought souvenirs, we’ve bought a camera,” says Binckebanck, displaying an elegant point-and-shoot he says would cost twice the price back home.

While average Americans baulk at souring fuel costs, Binckebanck says even the petrol-pump prices seem reasonable compared with Europe.

Many local businesses that cater to tourists, meanwhile, say they are feeling the uptick.

Small hotels on the edge of the everglades stayed open past their traditional summer close to accommodate European kayakers and bird watchers. And at Miami Scooter, in trendy South Beach, Donald Thomas says French and Italians are constant customers. ”We don’t advertise, and our scooters stay out,” he says.

Also getting a piece of the action: shopping tour operators.

Shop America Alliance, for example, offers packages that combine discount shopping at malls and outlets with cultural stops. A visitor can begin the day at a museum and finish off browsing Nike and Banana Republic.

Another package tops off a shopping spree with a relaxing spa treatment.

”The Germans, their favourite word is outlet,” says Shop America president Rosemary McCormick. ”They want to talk to you about where the best bargains are. The French, they’re the fashionistas.”

McCormick says the influx of European clients began about 18 months ago, when the dollar began eroding more quickly against the euro. In April, the euro hit an all-time high of 1,6018 against the greenback.

It hovered near that record again this week, as the US banking sector faltered.

The strong pound has also brought more visitors from the United Kingdom. ”Reebok, Nike, Apple, for the Brits,” says McCormick. Serious shoppers often make up their airfare in savings, she adds.

Their shopping and tourism dollars have been a balm for Florida during rocky financial times. The state is among those hardest hit by the mortgage and housing crisis, and droves of residents have packed up and left.

Environmental and economic woes are so acute that a prominent story in Time magazine this week asked: ”Is Florida the Sunset State?”

Even in the housing crisis, though, some Europeans see an opportunity, says Nocera — the chance to buy a vacation home in a tropical clime. It’s not a new trend, but with foreclosures pushing property prices to new lows, it is one that has gathered steam.

”There are some great bargains,” he says. ”And this appears to be something that will continue into the foreseeable future.” — Sapa-AFP

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