U.S. tourists get more bang for their buck in Europe Americans enjoy strong dollar

July 23, 1993|By Boston Globe

FLORENCE, Italy -- On a bridge overlooking the Arno River, Michael Schankerman and Ginny Carlson spread out their lunch of cheese, meat, melon and wine and savored the strength of the U.S. dollar.

"We budgeted $50 a day each for hotel, food and play," Ms. Carlson said. "So far we've managed to stick to that."

As she spoke, two French tourists in backpacks ambled by.

"We are poor French tourists," the man said in French with a smile. He gestured hungrily at the melon and meat. "We can only afford small portions."

Mr. Schankerman offered them a sip of wine and a slice of salami. The Frenchman smiled appreciatively.

"Tres bon dollar," he said.

For U.S. tourists, the dollar is indeed "bon" these days. In France it buys 15 percent more than a year ago, in England 28 percent, and here in Italy 38 percent more.

As a result, U.S. tourists, who shunned Europe in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, are returning in near-record numbers. The European Travel Commission estimates that the number of Americans traveling to Europe will jump 7.5 percent this year.

"There was a time when you would have a cup of coffee and say 'God!' " when you got the bill," said Elizabeth Simon, spokeswoman for the Paris-based European Travel Commission. "Now the relation between the U.S. dollar and European currencies has become healthier."

Indeed, if Americans in Europe have a spring in their step these days, it is because of the dollar, which might fluctuate from day to day but is not expected to head south any time soon.

"The dollar keeps going up," an American said as she stood in front of the Hotel Excelsior, one of Florence's most expensive hotels. "It's fun watching it in the newspapers."

Americans are benefiting not only from a strengthening dollar but also from a general recession across Europe that has hotels and restaurants reluctant to increase prices. What's more, such countries as Italy, Spain and Britain have devalued their currencies over the past year, increasing the dollar's strength.

Indeed, so strong is the dollar that London tourist officials say Americans are even paying the high prices for theater tickets charged by sidewalk scalpers. Despite the markup, tickets to such musicals as "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera" are cheaper than in the United States.

Tourists can still go into sticker shock, however. A room in a top hotel in London costs more than $400 a night. A plate of bad spaghetti at a sidewalk cafe overlooking a Roman fountain can cost $25. But those prices are down 25 percent to 38 percent from last summer.

After several years of recession and watching their budgets carefully, Americans going to Europe are finding out what it's like to be flush again.

"You get a little scared when you see all those zeros on the price tags," said Dominic Randolph, a first-time visitor to Italy, where the value of the dollar has jumped from 1,150 lire to the dollar to almost 1,600 in the past year. "But then you see it's not that bad. You pay $20 for a good necktie here, just like in the United States."

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