Frightened at the thought of flying, Irish tourists Glenda Kavanagh and Stephen McCabe had stayed away from the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks three years ago. But now they're back, joining others from Japan, Venezuela, Russia, Holland, Canada, and elsewhere last week on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif., to snap pictures and gawk in the windows of
"I was anxious about coming before because of what happened with the planes," said Kavanagh, a 25-year-old office worker from Dublin. "But it's probably more safe now because there's more security. They're looking out now for terrorists."
Kavanagh represents some welcome news: The number of international visitors to the United States is starting to increase again this year after plummeting following the 2001 terrorist attacks and the introduction of stricter security.
During the first six months of this year, the number of visitors increased by 16 percent and the number of visas for visits rose 14 percent, according to US government statistics.
International spending in the United States also has increased for the first time since 9/11 and is projected to rise 7 percent to $69.4 billion this year.
Even the numbers of visitors from Middle Eastern countries, which experienced some of the steepest declines, have begun inching up.
But their numbers remain far below 2000 levels, and many of their US friends and relatives say Middle Easterners have stopped investing, visiting, and studying here because of what they perceive as an unwelcoming atmosphere.
The recent US denial of entry to musician Yusuf Islam, a British citizen formerly known as Cat Stevens, inflamed such sentiment, some Muslims say.
The increasing numbers of foreign visitors are credited in part to improved federal visa review procedures, less fear among travelers of an imminent terrorist assault, more confidence in airport security, and a weaker US dollar, which makes a visit to this country more affordable.
Anxiety over other factors that have discouraged travel, including the Iraq war and a global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is also fading, travel specialists say.
Despite the early signs of improvement in foreign visitor levels, significant concerns remain among business leaders, economists, and others about the mounting costs associated with the stepped-up US security and border controls.
Many had fretted that the last three years have cost the United States good will and hard cash, evident in declines in tourist spending, foreign investment, and, on some campuses, foreign student enrollment.
According to the US Commerce Department, international spending in the United States dropped from $82.4 billion in 2000 to $65.1 billion in 2003.
Direct foreign investment plunged from $314 billion in 2000 to $29.7 billion in 2003. And the number of overseas visitors admitted as students dropped by 8.5 percent to 474,920 between 2001 and 2003.
Travelers from Arab and Islamic nations, particularly those from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, had registered among the steepest declines in visits to the United States.
Hicham Ayloush, 37, of Lebanon, a produce importer in Beirut, used to come to the United States twice a year to buy up to $3 million worth of Washington apples, California almonds, and carrots for clients in the Middle East.
But on his last visit last year, he said, he was made to sit in the back of the plane with air marshals and then was required by Chicago airport authorities to open his computer files and strip to his underwear.
After that, Ayloush said, he decided to dump most of his US producers. Now he buys primarily from France, Chile, and New Zealand.
"I was coming, buying, and helping your economy," Ayloush said in a telephone interview from Beirut. "But now we've decided to delay any more visits until we feel we are well-treated."
Among American Muslims, such stories are common. Mohannad Malas, who owns a real estate investment company in Laguna Beach, Calif., and Adnan Khan, a Beverly Hills businessman, share several tales of Middle East investors who have pulled out of the US market and once-frequent visitors who no longer come.
Khan said two of his friends, Pakistani industrialists, used to come every year, dropping $100,000 or more at Las Vegas casinos while their wives shopped at upscale clothing stores.
But after their last visit this year, he said, they told him they would not be returning because of "rough treatment" at the airport.
"I want terrorism stopped and I want my country to be safe, but we shouldn't hassle people," Khan said. "I see us losing people, losing investments, one by one."