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Flocking to Philly: International Visitors Up Nearly 50 Percent

The world economy may be in the doldrums, but the world continues to visit Philadelphia. In 2010, Philly was the 13th most internationally visited in the U.S. with a lowball estimate of 633,000 visitors from overseas, up seven percent from 2009.

The numbers come from the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PCVB), the city's international tourism marketing arm. (By another measure, 14% of 2.5 million visitors to the Independence Visitor Center are from overseas.) Kathleen Titus, the PCVB's executive director for tourism, notes that in 2000, only 397,000 international visitors were counted.

Since then, a lot has changed. The PCVB mounted a sophisticated marketing campaign to attract visitors from overseas and it continues to have a better product to sell: That includes successful Facebook pages in at least four overseas countries, like Italy. "We've really become a sexy, metropolitan city," Titus says.

Also changing is the origin of the visitors. For many years, Western Europe dominated, with visitors flocking from the UK, France and Germany. Those countries continue to be well represented, but the big explosion now is in visitation from India, China and elsewhere in Asia, Titus says.  (In 2010, the top five countries in terms of visitor spending in Philly were, in order, the UK, France, China, South Korea and Brazil.)

Coming and Going
Why do they come? Many of the international visitors are here to attend conventions and meetings, Titus says, with about 30 percent of the attendees at the Pennsylvania Convention Center coming from overseas. (Direct flights and the city's central East Coast location make Western European meetings especially cost effective here.) Many visitors also come to do business at the large number of overseas firms with U.S. headquarters or branches here.

Shopping is another huge draw. With the Euro and other currencies strong against the dollar -- and no sales tax on clothing -- Pennsylvania is one big bargain for shoppers from overseas. (Look for busloads of visitors at the King of Prussia malls.) The region's elite educational institutions draw parents and kids making college visits; medical institutions attract wealthy foreigners for treatment. The traditional sightseeing magnets, such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, are of strong interest. And Lancaster County's Amish hold a special fascination.

Promoting overseas tourism to Pennsylvania was of sufficient interest to former Gov. Ed Rendell to fund marketing representatives and advertising in a number of Western European countries. When the Corbett administration cut that funding. PCVB picked up much of the slack and continues to mount an aggressive international marketing campaign relying on strategic partnerships with tour operators, sales missions, press tours and social media. The PCVB is optimistic that Corbett and the state will support it in future.

Titus's wish list to draw more overseas visitors to Philadelphia includes direct flights to India and China for starters. More international carriers to PHL would be good, too. She also pines for more interpreters and guides who speak Mandarin and other languages. And education for the hospitality industry would be useful, she says, for Asian visitors who have extremely high expectations for customer service.

The PCVB is hoping to host the Active America-China Conference in 2013 or 2014, a large gathering of tour operators that could set the stage for more Chinese visitors. China has a population of 1.4 billion, notes Titus, only 30,000 of whom came to Philly last year, "so we've just scratched the surface."

ELISE VIDER is a writer, editor, observer and advocate for economic development and design excellence in Philadelphia, her adopted hometown. Send feedback here.
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