U.S. tourism officials are bracing for 22.1 million foreign visitors this year, the biggest influx of international tourists since 1981.
The visitors are being lured by foreign currencies that are 18 percent to 41 percent stronger against the dollar than a year ago and because of economic growth in Great Britain, France and West Germany, according to travel experts.
"America is back . . . . We know from polls that everyone wants to come here. It's their No. 1 choice," said Vivian Deuschl, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration, a branch of the Commerce Department.
That, combined with an American public that many in the industry say will choose domestic over foreign travel in fear of international terrorism, could mean that tourism will provide one of the few bright spots in the U.S. international balance of trade, Commerce officials said.
In Washington, where tourism is the No. 2 industry, the most recent U.S. Travel Data Center figures show that foreign visitors spent one-third of a billion dollars in 1983.
"We have a sharply increasing hotel inventory, and we're currently looking at the overseas market as one of the great hopes we have to fill those rooms," said Austin Kenny, executive vice president of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association. "It's a very important growth market to us."
Kenny's organization is working with the Hotel Association of Washington to print multilingual versions of brochures for such Washington tourist attractions as the Metro system to make things easier for international visitors.
After dramatic increases in foreign tourism between the 1976 Bicentennial and 1981, unfavorable exchange rates made travel to the United States too expensive for many who normally would have come from abroad.
"Foreigners see vacations as mental health-mandated, while Americans see it as a luxury," Deuschl said. "That's why they felt so deprived when they couldn't come."
Last year, Americans spent $10.3 billion more abroad than foreign visitors brought into this country.
Tourism officials said that this gap could be dramatically reduced or even eliminated as Europeans and Japanese return to this country to see the refurbished Statue of Liberty, visit the nation's capital or experience a Texas sesquicentennial.
The British, West Germans and French are most likely to be seen on Washington's broad boulevards. They are drawn here because it is the U.S. capital and because of its museums and art galleries, its interesting people and its shopping, according to a poll by the Gallup organization conducted for the tourism administration.
The French want to see the Statue of Liberty, which was a French gift, and the British express greatest interest in visiting Washington, which ranked behind New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami last year in numbers of foreign visitors.
The threat of terrorism does not seem to bother Europeans, several officials said.
"They take it in stride," said Richard Dyner, president of Dynamic Tours in New York, which books several hundred tours for foreign groups each year.
Europeans are "much more fatalistic about it because they've lived with it," Deuschl said, echoing comments by several tourism officials.
Mexicans and Canadians, however, face travel problems. Fewer Mexicans will visit this country because of serious inflation, unemployment and a depressed economy caused by plunging oil profits there.
A less favorable dollar exchange rate and the opening of Expo '86 in Vancouver are expected to reduce the number of Canadian vacationers.
In previous years, Mexicans and Canadians accounted for more than half the foreign visitors.
Television has created a perception of American wealth that the tourism industry has had to fight in attracting foreigners, Deuschl said.
"It's a tough job for me to convince them they can afford it," she said. "We are an expensive destination."
Working to the advantage of the U.S. tourism industry are lower gasoline prices, cheaper air fares and cities that are mounting more sophisticated advertising campaigns to attract foreign travelers, industry experts said.
Having foreign visitors come here also is advantageous, the experts noted, because 80 percent of the tourists make return trips.
"If they've been to the traditional cities on the first trip, they get more adventuresome on the second," Deuschl said. "And that's good for areas like the Southwest and Pacific Northwest."
In states where primary industries such as coal-mining and steel production have meant huge declines in income over the last decade, tourism is thus an attractive new source of revenue.
Foreign visitors, who provided $14 billion of the $225 billion added to the U.S. economy by foreign and domestic travelers last year, spend much more per person than Americans who travel in the United States.
"We need the foreign currency," Deuschl said. "The average foreign visitor spends four times on a vacation what someone coming from Dubuque would spend. They stay longer -- three to four weeks -- and buy lots because they're not sure when they might come back."
"We're bracing ourselves for the onslaught," said Steven Trombetti, a spokesman for the American Hotel and Motel Association. His industry is looking for 150,000 additional workers this year in jobs that range from unskilled to highly skilled, he said.
Travel industry officials said they are trying hard to exercise caution about anticipating a boom year. After the 1981-82 recession, the industry expected that domestic tourists would be back but, because consumers had delayed buying major appliances and cars during the downturn, Americans spent little on travel until this year.
In an industry planning to add 85,000 hotel rooms this year, officials said that, if travel dropped significantly, empty rooms quickly could become a problem.
Airline industry officials said that foreign tourism will help offset the airlines' loss of business from Americans not traveling abroad.
Most tourism officials are reluctant to say that possible cutbacks in hours and services at some Washington monuments and museums, stemming from reduced federal spending, will cause problems.
These officials generally thought that taller grass and longer lines at monuments are annoyances that visitors will be perfectly willing to endure.
One Filipino visitor on the Mall last week merely shrugged when asked whether such inconveniences would bother her.
"After all, it's the capital," she said. "Everybody's talking about it. We simply must come."