NEW YORK -- Paul Coffey earns a modest salary working at a shoe warehouse near London, but this year he was able to vacation with his wife and two teenage sons in Manhattan, sightseeing and shopping for the latest fashions and electronic gadgets.
"We are working-class people, so to be able to afford it is quite unusual -- really -- and it shows just how strong the pound is against the weakling dollar," Coffey said last week as the family waited to board a tour bus in Times Square.
European tourists scared away from New York City by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, have finally returned because, with the dollar slumping, their British pounds and euros go much further than they would back home. The city's figures show that the estimated number of foreign tourists increased last year for the first time since 2000, rising by 10 percent from 2003 to 5.3 million.
As if the nation's most expensive city were a glittering
"I'm looking for iPods," said Peter Beddoes, from Birmingham, England. "This is our second time coming to New York City, and this time it's much cheaper. It's like when Americans go to the UK and buy a cup of coffee, it's a pound or about $2, but we get that coffee for only 50p," 50 pence, or less than a dollar in New York.
Long after Christmas shoppers have deserted the city and as New Yorkers head to warmer climes, Europeans are still coming -- packing the red double-decker tourist buses, searching for art on the streets of SoHo, and scouring Chinatown for the best deals on faux designer purses, watches, and DVDS.
New York businesses are happy to cater to their needs.
"We put caviar back on the menu starting during the holidays," said Michael Desiderio, general manager of Tavern on the Green in Central Park, arguably the city's most popular restaurant. It fed 505,000 people in 2004, up from 460,000 the previous year. "We did 45,000 more people -- no question it's the European pickup. I will take it a step further -- our group business for tour and travel was up some $700,000 more."
Foreign visitors who come to New York tend to be big spenders. They account for only 15 percent of all tourists, but 40 percent of tourist spending.
Still, some restaurant owners say their foreign patrons are skimpy tippers. A number of restaurants have begun to add an expected gratuity of 17 percent on their menus, but others are being more subtle.
"I just tell my waitresses to say, 'Thank you very much, and tips are not included,' " said Alex Meskourism, co-owner of HK, a restaurant in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.
Managers at hotels with a European flavor, including the Algonquin and the Alex, say accents from Germany, London, and Dublin dominate their lobbies. By early morning one day last week, German, Italian, and French accents could be heard in a waiting room of the Gray Line New York Sightseeing tour near Times Square.
"We hope we can continue. The projections show that we are on our way to additional increases," said Christyne Nicholas, president of NYC & Company, the city's tourism bureau.
The city saw 12 percent more tourists from the United Kingdom in 2004 than in 2003, 15 percent more from Germany and France, and 18 percent more from Italy.
Local officials give partial credit to the city's aggressive marketing in Europe, where New York tourism offices opened in France and Italy last year. Visitors from Japan increased by 15 percent after the city launched an advertising campaign there featuring Yankee outfielder Hideki Matsui.
Still, most agree the wobbly dollar is the main reason for the return of foreign tourists, especially Europeans, who account for most of the international visitors. During 2004, a pound was worth between $1.76 and $1.95, while the euro ranged from $1.18 to an all-time high of $1.36, at year's end.
"It's at $1.30 at the moment. It's a bit off its peak, but it's still strong, so that means anybody from Europe visiting the US -- it looks like US prices are very cheap," said Nigel Gault, an economist at Global Insight in Lexington, Mass.
The weak greenback has also drawn tourists to Boston, but Patrick Moscaritolo, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the city has not experienced such a boom.
"We are not as dramatic as what New York has seen," he said. "The year 2000 was our peak. We saw 1.2 million people."
Boston had 757,000 foreign tourists in 2003, a figure officials estimate rose to 816,000 last year. The Big Apple has not reached 6.8 million, its peak back in 2000, but New Yorkers are betting European tourists will continue to come.
"I believe we are going to ride this thing for another year and a half or more," said Desiderio of Tavern on the Green. "We expect the spring to be even better."
Not all Europeans see New York as a big bargain basement. Some tourists said they can get better or similar deals on the Internet. Others indicated they were surprised that a city tax was added to their bills.
"I think it's much cheaper in Germany," huffed Ulrique Lenk, a retiree from Frankfurt. "The restaurants here -- oh! they are not so cheap."
Anna Albar, a 30-year-old from Spain, who was visiting her boyfriend last week, said she cannot believe how expensive the city is.
"I don't see how people are able to live here. The supermarkets -- they are so expensive. But I have euros, so I'm OK," she said.
But like Coffey, the warehouse worker, Kevin Tower, a teacher from Scotland who was visiting Manhattan with his wife, Geraldine, said the weak dollar makes him feel like he's getting a great deal.
"Everything is cheaper here," Tower said as he waited to buy theater tickets. "We bought jeans -- Levi's for $19. But they would have been about $60 in the UK."
Then he cracked a wide smile.