ORLANDO, Fla. - Nicola Ross held up a gray and black sneaker for her husband, Ian, to examine in a Puma store aisle piled high with boxes of tennis shoes. She arched her eyebrows when she saw the price tag.
‘‘They’re $40!" said Ross, a tourist from Liverpool, England. ‘‘Do you like them? Try them on.’’
Although Ross, 37, is no slouch of a shopper — it is one of her favorite activities back home — she was stunned at her purchasing power recently on an excursion to an outlet mall in Orlando. The power came in no small part from a currency exchange rate that had the British pound approaching twice the value of the U.S. dollar.
‘‘The exchange rate is fabulous,’’ said Ian Ross, who sells household appliances in Liverpool. ‘‘We couldn’t have timed it better to come over on holiday.’’
U.S. tourism officials expect more European and Canadian visitors will follow the Rosses’ example this year, in part because of the weak U.S. dollar. They hope the exchange rate helps reverse a three-year decline in the number of international visitors to the United States.
‘‘It couldn’t happen at a better time,’’ said Cathy Keefe, a spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association of America in Washington. ‘‘We’ll see the results of tourists spending more money. They’ll stay longer, stay at nicer hotels, take more tours, eat out at more restaurants.’’
Keefe said she does not believe last week’s terrorist bombings in Madrid will affect international visits to the United States. ‘‘It may be a different matter if something happened on U.S. soil again,’’ she said.
The dollar recently reached a record low against the euro and an 11-year low against the pound.
This week, the euro was worth about $1.22, compared with $1.07 at the same time last year; a British pound was worth about $1.80, versus $1.58 at the same time last year; and a Canadian dollar was worth about 75 cents, up from about 67 cents.
Because of the exchange rate, 14-year-old Emma Price of South Yorkshire, England, bought five heavy-metal Tshirts in Orlando, and her parents, Martin and Sandra, decided they could afford a road trip to Miami.
The family used more cash instead of credit cards, and booked hotel reservations and bought theme park tickets in the United States rather than in Britain. By buying the tickets in dollars instead of pounds, they saved about $21 each day they went to the parks.
The exchange rate also led the British travel company Virgin Holidays to renegotiate prices with the U.S. hotels and car rental companies that it uses. The new prices allowed the company earlier this year to offer a package of airfare to Orlando, seven nights’ accommodations and a rental car for 399 pounds, or 130 pounds less than what it previously offered, said spokeswoman Naomi Lewis.
At the current exchange rate, the discounted price would be equal to about $718, for about $234 in savings.
The number of international visitors coming to the United States slipped from a high of 51 million in 2000 to an expected 40.1 million visitors in 2003, once final figures are tallied by the U.S. Office of Travel & Tourism Industries. Expectations for a strong year in 2003 were dashed by the sluggish world economy, the war in Iraq and the SARS scare.
But there were signs of improvement toward the end of last year. In November, arrivals from Western Europe were up 7 percent from the same month in 2002. Canadian arrivals jumped 11 percent.
The U.S. tourism office is predicting a 5 percent increase in international visitors in 2004, or 42.1 million tourists.
Some U.S. tourism leaders attribute the upturn to the exchange rate, as well as a greater feeling of security in traveling and an improving world economy.
‘‘We’re hearing more languages spoken along Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue,’’ said Cristyne Nicholas, president of NYC & Company, New York City’s tourism marketing agency.
International tourists are prized visitors because they spend more money than domestic tourists. In New York City, for instance, they make up 17 percent of visitors but account for 40 percent of tourism spending.
Mike Palma, general manager of the trendy Clevelander Hotel in Miami Beach, estimated that the number of Europeans visiting South Beach right now is 20 percent higher than last year. Walt Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., are experiencing a 12 percent increase in international visitors for the second quarter, according to Prudential Equity Group. The theme parks suffered a dramatic drop-off after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
A British family of four who booked in U.S. dollars a $1,550 package at Walt Disney World that includes theme park tickets and four nights’ lodging would pay about 858 pounds at the current exchange rate. They would have paid 967 pounds a year ago.