Overseas Travel Trends

Overseas Travel Trends

Fueled by cheaper airfares and a strong global economy, overseas travel volumes to and from the United States grew across the board in the 1990s, especially in the last half of the decade12. Between 1990 and 2000, U.S. international overseas travel grew from 31 million trips to 53 million, an increase of 70 percent (table 1). Europe13 is the top origin and destination for U.S. overseas travel, accounting for 25 million trips in 2000, an increase of 70 percent between 1990 and 2000. However, other regions experienced faster growth during this period. For example, trips between the United States and South America increased from 2 million in 1990 to 5 million in 2000, or 125 percent. At the same time, travel between Asia and the United States grew 81 percent from 7 million trips to just over 12 million trips.14

U.S. and international airports serve as key gateways for much of this overseas travel15 (table 10). In 2000, the top 20 U.S. gateway airports accounted for 90 percent of nonstop international air travel to and from the United States. John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport in New York served the highest number of international passengers16 in 2000, 18.4 million (figure 7). Other important U.S. gateways are Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago, each handling more then 10 million international passengers (see box 2, pages 39-41). Passenger traffic at other U.S. gateway airports increased noticeably during the 1990s. Minneapolis, Newark, and Atlanta grew the fastest in terms of international passengers. Honolulu and New York LaGuardia were the only gateways where international traffic decreased between 1990 and 2000.

Travelers arriving and departing from U.S. gateways are transported along major international routes linked by airport pairs (table 11). New York JFK-London Heathrow ranked first in bidirectional international air traffic, accounting for approximately 2.9 million bidirectional passengers in 2000. Heathrow also ranked fourth, fifth, eighth, and ninth with Los Angeles, Chicago O'Hare, San Francisco, and Washington Dulles, respectively, due in large part to its role as a transatlantic transfer point. Another U.S.-Europe pair, New York JFK-Paris Charles de Gaulle ranked seventh in 2000. The top U.S.-Asian airport pairs included Honolulu-Tokyo Narita, Los Angeles-Tokyo Narita, and Los Angeles-Taipei.

Several airport pairs experienced notable annual growth rates during the 1990s, including: Los Angeles-London Heathrow, Chicago O'Hare-London Heathrow, Los Angeles-Taipei, San Francisco-London Heathrow, Detroit-Amsterdam, and Orlando-London Gatwick. Of these airport pairs, Detroit-Amsterdam experienced the greatest rate of growth by far. Traffic increased from about 7,000 international passengers in 1990 to over 900,000 in 2000, for an average annual growth rate of 63 percent during this period. This high growth rate is the result of an airline alliance between Northwest and KLM. Over 60 percent of the traffic on the Detroit-Amsterdam flights does not originate in either Detroit or Amsterdam. There are numerous spoke cities connecting to each of these hubs. By linking the hubs, the alliance created 16,240 connecting opportunities under a single code in the airlines' reservations systems (Airlines Gate 2002). Amsterdam is just one example of a foreign gateway airport that experienced steady increases in the number of international passengers it served through the 1990s. Figure 8 shows the geographic location of the top 20 foreign gateways around the world for international travel to and from the United States and the traffic increases over the last decade.

Outbound Overseas Travel

U.S. outbound overseas travel expanded consistently during the 1990s. In 2000, U.S. residents made more overseas trips than ever before, almost 27 million (table 2). Spurred by solid U.S. economic performance for most of the 1990s, American overseas visits grew at an annual rate of 5.3 percent between 1990 and 2000. During the 1990s, U.S. business and vacation travelers, keen on lower airfares and the expansion of their economic and leisure activities, increased their travel to all regions worldwide. Europe was the top destination for U.S. travelers in 2000, accounting for just over 13 million trips, up 66 percent from 8 million in 1990. During this same period, U.S. outbound travel to Asia, South America, and the Middle East grew by 93 percent, 130 percent, and 159 percent, respectively.

Although travel grew consistently during the 1990s, U.S. outbound overseas travel began to change in 2001. During the first six months of 2001, outbound overseas travel increased slightly when compared with 2000 levels. However, U.S. outbound overseas travel fell from 2000 levels by 30 percent in September 2001 and 28 percent in October 2001. Regionally, U.S. outbound travel decreased the most to the Middle East, falling 39 percent in September and 42 percent in October. The two most visited regions by U.S. residents (Europe and Asia) also experienced major declines in the number of trips following September 11. After modest growth in U.S. outbound trips destined for Europe and Asia in 2001 leading up to September, trips to these regions declined by 32 percent and 25 percent, respectively, in September compared with 2000. For European trips, the decline continued in October, falling to 35 percent below 2000 levels.

Prior to September 11, U.S. travel to less traditional destinations was becoming more frequent. Countries such as China (including Hong Kong), Brazil, India, Turkey, and Poland saw travel from the United States more than double between 1990 and 2000 (table 12). Many of the countries with the sharpest growth rates were in Asia, in part prompted by the more active promotion of tourism by government agencies in those countries, the expansion of the scope of U.S. international business activities, and visits to friends and family by members of immigrant communities.

South American countries also drew increasingly large numbers of U.S. resident visitors during the 1990s. Trips to Brazil rose by 357 percent for the decade, placing the country among the top 20 visited by U.S. residents. Argentina and Chile, also ranking among the high-growth South American countries, more than doubled their number of U.S. resident visits between 1990 and 2000. In 1990, U.S. residents chose Columbia and Venezuela for the most trips to South America, but trip growth to these countries has stagnated since that time.

Although Eastern Europe accounted for only 1 percent of all U.S. resident outbound international travel in 2000, travel to that region increased over 150 percent from 1990 to 2000. With the fall of communism and the relaxation of travel restrictions, U.S. residents began to frequent destinations in such countries as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Russia. In 2000, Poland and the Czech Republic were the top Eastern European destinations with just over a half million U.S. visits, combined. Poland was also the fastest growing Eastern European destination, showing a 460 percent increase in U.S. visits between 1990 and 2000.

Inbound Overseas Travel

Throughout the 1990s, the number of overseas visitors to the United States grew steadily. In 2000, overseas visitors to the United States made 26 million overnight trips (excluding Canada and Mexico), an increase of 73 percent from 1990 (table 2). European and Asian arrivals accounted for a large share of overseas trip growth to the United States during the past decade. The two regions, whose residents made 11.6 million and 7.6 million U.S. visits, respectively, accounted for almost three-quarters of all overseas trips to the U.S. in 2000.

However, rates of growth for visitors from less traditional markets were generally greater during the 1990s as airfares dropped and travel options increased, due, in part, to international aviation market and policy liberalization and alliance-related efficiencies. Though ranked third for U.S. overseas arrivals, South America generated nearly 3 million visits to the U.S.-an 11 percent overseas share-in 2000, and grew faster than European and Asian arrivals between 1990 and 2000, with a 122 percent increase (USDOC ITA 2001b). Arrivals from Central America, the Middle East, and Africa also saw increases greater than 90 percent between 1990 and 2000. Yet, visits from these three regions still only constituted a combined 7 percent share of all U.S. overseas arrivals in 2000. Likewise, arrivals from Eastern Europe grew 112 percent for the period, but are nonetheless eclipsed by those from Western Europe at a ratio of over 26 to 1.

While overseas travel to the United States increased during the 1990s, arrivals began to decrease in 2001 due in part to the economic downturn in many countries, and then fell appreciably following September 11. Between January and August 2001, there were 4 percent fewer overseas arrivals to the United States when compared with the same months in 2000 (USDOC ITA 2002b). Record level monthly declines of 29 percent, 34 percent, and 29 percent then followed in September, October, and November 2001, respectively, compared with monthly totals in 2000. Among the top overseas nations for arrivals to the United States, Japan experienced the greatest U.S. inbound travel decline from September to November 2001 (table 13).

Prior to and after September 11, Canada and Mexico were the top countries for overall inbound travel to the United States (table 14). Japan accounted for the most inbound overseas arrivals in 2000 (5.1 million), followed by the United Kingdom (4.7 million) and Germany (1.8 million). As Japan's economy stagnated toward the close of the decade, the yen weakened and, as a result, its arrivals grew at a slower rate than those from the United Kingdom between 1990 and 2000.

Economic conditions in many countries influenced travel to the United States during the last decade. Visits from nations such as South Korea, Venezuela, Argentina, and Colombia more than doubled between 1990 and 2000. However, travel from these countries closely mirrored the economic growth of the early 1990s, declined with the Asian and Latin American economic shocks of 1997 and 1998, and then rebounded along with the global economic recovery at the end of the 1990s.17The connection between national economic performance and international travel was most clearly shown in the case of South Korea. Ranked only 19th in 1990, Koreans' total overnight trips to the United States grew at average annual rates exceeding 12 percent between 1990 and 2000. As a result of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the Korean economy contracted and trips to the United States decreased by 50 percent from 1997 to 1998. In 1999 and 2000, however, South Korea rebounded with strong economic and travel growth. The net result was an overall 213 percent increase in overnight trips to the United States from 1990 to 2000.

Also notable is China's 97 percent rise in visits to the United States for the same period. Most of this growth is attributable to increased visits from mainland Chinese as opposed to those from Hong Kong. While arrivals to the United States from Hong Kong grew by a modest 24 percent from 1990 to 2000, trips made by mainland Chinese were up a remarkable 278 percent for the same period. The ratio of visits by mainland Chinese to the United States and Hong Kong travelers visiting the United States was a 5 to 4 proportion in 2000 compared with 2 to 5 in 1990 (table 14). Many factors influenced increased Chinese travel to the United States, including steady economic growth within China and some relaxation of travel regulations. Both of these helped spur more business and leisure visits to the United States.

Among the approximately 26 million overseas visits made to the United States in 2000, 15.9 million, or 61 percent, were made by people who identified themselves as leisure travelers while 7.8 million, or 30 percent, described themselves as business travelers.18 Yet, when asked specifically about their main trip purpose, the same overseas travelers to the U.S. cited leisure and recreation 46 percent of the time and business 26 percent of the time. Secondary reasons for visiting the United States included visiting friends and relatives (33 percent), convention attendance (9 percent), and study or teaching (4 percent).

Once foreign travelers enter the United States, they require transportation for a variety of purposes. Since the average overseas traveler visits at least two U.S. destinations and one-third of all overseas travelers visit two or more U.S. states, transportation between destinations is a priority (USDOC ITA 2001a). Transportation choices and services are issues confronting both international and domestic passengers at U.S. airports. As an illustration of overseas travelers' need for medium- to long-distance transportation options, a number of U.S. cities and their airports serve as ports of entry but not necessarily visitors' final destinations. For example, while 6 percent of overseas visitors to the United States in 2000 cited Newark, New Jersey, as their port of entry, only 1 percent listed Newark as a destination. On the other end of the spectrum, 6 percent of overseas visitors in 2000 entered the United States in San Francisco, but nearly 11 percent of these travelers characterized San Francisco as a destination (USDOC ITA 2001a).

In making trips to and from airports, as well as completing intracity travel and longer distance movements between U.S. cities, overseas visitors used a variety of travel modes in 2000. Of the approximately 26 million overseas visitors to the United States in 2000, approximately 41 percent took taxis, 33 percent drove or rode along in a rented automobile, and another 26 percent used a company or private car. For other transportation modes, 29 percent of overseas visitors flew within the United States, 20 percent used an urban subway, 10 percent boarded intercity buses, and 9 percent rode on intercity rail service in 2000 (USDOC ITA 2001a). As compared with all overseas travelers, business travelers were more likely to fly and drive while vacationers and people visiting friends and family took advantage of buses, subways, and trains more often.


12 This section reviews trends in travel between the United States and overseas countries, for trips of one day or more (overnight). Overnight travel to and from Canada and Mexico is not specifically addressed here, but is examined in the earlier section on North American overnight travel.

13 Includes countries of Western and Eastern Europe.

14 Strong growth regions like Asia and South America are offset by moderate growth regions that have higher volumes of trips, resulting in a rise of 70 percent overall for U.S. overnight travel between 1990 and 2000.

15 International aviation airport pair, passenger, and departure information is derived from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Office of Airline Information, Segment T-100 and T-100F data. T-100F data cover foreign carriers operating in the United States. The T-100 and T-100F segment data include all traffic arriving at and departing from U.S. airports on nonstop commercial international flights. These data represent only nonstop service. Air carriers that operate aircraft with 60 seats or less are not required to file T-100 data (T-100F for foreign carriers).

16International passengers are residents of any country traveling nonstop to and from the United States on U.S. and foreign carriers that operate aircraft with 60 seats or more.

17 Argentina also experienced trip growth stagnation in 1994 and 1995 due to its economic troubles.

18 These estimates are based on survey data. Trip purpose will not sum to 100 because the survey allowed travelers to report more than one purpose or no trip purpose at all (see USDOC ITA 2001a).