Despite predictions for slow growth in foreign tourism in America, the nation's capital is experiencing a surprising surge - and many foreigners are coming to shop, not gawk.
Washington has more major museums and historical monuments than any other U.S. city, and neighboring Virginia is dotted with homes of former presidents, Civil War battlefields and the first English colonial settlement in America.But one of the Washington area's biggest draws for foreigners and Virginia's No. 1 tourist destination is a mile-long discount shopping mall a few miles south of the capital.
"My plan is to shop until I drop," said Denise Bernard, a Chilean and expectant mother, who was buying everything she imagined she would need for her new baby at Potomac Mills shopping center.
She said prices are half those in Santiago and calculated she'd come out ahead, even after paying her air fare.
Calvin Choone, an electronics engineer from Singapore, was using his only free day of a weeklong business conference in Washington to cruise Potomac Mills, which has rows of extra-long parking spaces reserved for tourist buses.
"I'm not planning to do any sightseeing in Washington," he said. "There just isn't time after the work and shopping."
Bernard and Choone have become more typical of foreign tourists to the capital, who still visit the Washington Monument, the Vietnam memorial and the Smithsonian museums but are also finding time to shop.
"The word is finally getting out that Washington is more than monuments and government buildings," said Marie Tibor, vice president of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association, the city's tourism promotion agency.
With New York increasingly clogged by foreigners during the summer season, the nation's capital is fast establishing itself as an alternative, offering a shopping haven without the high-pressure tactics of Manhattan street merchants, the crowds, or the perceived risk of muggings.
"Washington has always been a popular day trip for internationals from New York," Tibor said. "We have been working diligently to turn that into overnight visits because that's when the real dollars pour in."
The World Tourism Organization estimates that by 2000, 700 million people will travel internationally, double the number of 1985. They predict the U.S. share will remain at about the present level of 45 million arrivals annually, while worldwide tourism grows by about 7 percent annually.
But Washington tourism is increasing with such promotions as United Airlines' program to allow a free stopover in the capital for overseas arrivals and Britain's Virgin Atlantic Airways' introduction of nonstop service between London and Washington.
"The long-term trend is certainly up for the entire capital region," said Matt Gafney, marketing director at the Virginia Division of Tourism in Richmond. "We're seeing the largest growth from Britain, Germany and Japan."
Potomac Mills spokeswoman Virginia Pancoe said studies show that shopping is now the "top leisure activity for international visitors. They outspend the domestic shopper by about five to one."
The mall, which has 220 stores, attracts more than 4 million tourists a year, a quarter of its customers, she said. On a typical day, mall shoppers include a wide variety of Latin Americans, Asians and Europeans.
"Foreigners are particularly keen on products with a `Made in U.S.A.' sticker," said Todd Gaillard, the Levi's store manager. "They're astounded by our prices and we've had Japanese customers wanting to buy 100 pairs."