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Mixed feelings as tourists spend cheap dollars  Aug 07, 2008

It didn't take an investigative reporter to discover that there are swarms of international tourists in San Francisco this summer. Stroll down Market Street and if you don't hear at least three languages in the two blocks, maybe you should change the batteries on your hearing aid.

And, they're not just sightseeing. With the dollar limping along in currency exchange, international shoppers are snatching bargains off the shelves, sometimes at half price.

"Walk around Union Square," said Laurie Armstrong, vice president of marketing and communication for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. "You'll see people speaking foreign languages carrying a multitude of designer shopping bags. This is a beautiful thing."

Sure it is. Just terrific.

Of course the city is grateful for the income in these tough economic times. And, certainly, no one begrudges our friends from other countries for taking advantage of their rate of exchange bonanza. After all, it wasn't so long ago that the dollar was strong and Americans were cutting a swath through the shopping aisles of Europe.

It's just that - well, it is hard not to feel a little pang of jealousy, isn't it?

Take Kimberly Peinado, a marketing director who lives near the Golden Gate Park Panhandle. She and her husband have a friend, a wonderful guy, who happens to be a British pilot. When he comes to visit, Peinado admits she has to fight "tourist envy."

"He's a fun, gregarious guy who we adore," she said, "so it pains me every time I catch myself calculating how little it costs him when we go out to dinner."

Don't be so hard on yourself Kimberly. It happens.

Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, says restaurants in the tourist zone are booming. They're not only selling expensive meals, but the tourists aren't holding back with the wine orders, either.

"They all want to try some of that great California wine," Westlye said. "After all, a $150 bottle is only about $90 (at $1.54 per euro)."

At the same time, Westlye says, the locals, stung by tough economic times, "are downsizing, drinking cheaper wines." So picture the glum Americans, sipping the house chardonnay, at one table, while a merry group of Brits, who change money at the rate of nearly $2 for each pound sterling, uncork another choice Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.

Not that anyone is bitter, mind you. In these troubled times a city would have to be nuts to gripe about too many people buying too much stuff.

"It is crystal clear," said Westlye, "that we've been buoyed by the exchange rate for the last few years."

Happy to be buoyed
Naturally, residents are happy to be buoyed. Noe Valley's Doug Litwin was delighted to rent out a spare apartment to a couple of tourists from France, who turned out to be swell tenants.

But although he wasn't really keeping an eye on their purchases, Litwin couldn't help but notice all the empty boxes from Pottery Barn, Macy's and IKEA in the trash can.

"They actually bought furniture for the place and then left it," Litwin said. "I guess they figured, what the heck, it's funny money."

But the moment that really stung was when the two visitors announced that they were going to rent a car and drive to Chicago. Litwin, trying to be helpful, asked them if they realized that gas was over $4 a gallon.

"They simply shrugged and said that, to them, the USA and its gas prices were a real bargain," Litwin said. "That's when 'international tourist envy' really kicked in."

Better get used to it. International tourism is only on the way up. According to the California Travel and Tourism Board, nearly 5.2 million people from overseas visited California in 2007, and more are coming. Germany, Italy and India all saw double-digit percentage increases in 2007, and that's not including the United Kingdom, which led all countries with more than 760,000. This year alone, between January and May, 82,128 travelers from the United Kingdom landed at San Francisco International.

And what is everyone saying when they get back home? Well, probably what Katherine Grant, from Waterford City, Ireland, told me about the rate of exchange.

"It's amazing," she said. "We're going to Tiffany's and everything. We bought a Prada phone and D&G (Dolce & Gabbana) sunglasses, which we'd never get in Ireland."

Oh what the heck, it's all on sale isn't it?

Unless you live here.

Wads of cash
"They always have wads of cash," said Peinado of her British pilot friend and his flight crew. "I am just in awe how much cash they have."

Which is just what the tourists expected, apparently. Bruno Icher, wife Laure and daughter Margot are here from Paris. They came planning to do some serious shopping and have not been disappointed.

"Everyone in Europe, the television, the newspapers, and the magazines talked about how cheap it was in the United States," said Icher.

In fact, Margot, a trendy 16-year-old, made a list of where she wanted to go and what she wanted to buy before she got here. She wanted to visit American Apparel, H&M, and to find a madras hat. Oh and one more thing.

"A dollar bill with Britney Spears' picture on it," Margot said.

To them, it probably looked like a real U.S. dollar.

Mixed feelings as tourists spend cheap dollars

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