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Foreign visitors are key boost to South Florida tourism  Mar 31, 2009

Travel wholesaler Arturo Armayor surveys South Florida's battered tourism market and finds much to celebrate.

He books rooms at a discount for Europeans and Latin Americans with modest vacation budgets, a job made easier by this winter's 11 percent decrease in room rates across Miami-Dade County. His foreign clients seem less spooked than American travelers by the economic crisis, with his Miami Beach bookings higher than last year's.

And while a booming travel market once relegated much of Armayor's business to airport hotels and other low-cost spots, the downturn has brought his clients more desirable options.

''We are getting many spaces on the Beach,'' said Armayor, CEO of Vacations USA Tours, based in North Bay Village. ``All the hotels that didn't want to talk to us, now they're trying to catch up with us.''

Armayor's good fortune captures many of the challenges facing South Florida's hotel industry as well as the hope that foreign travelers will once again prop up the summer tourism season.

Last summer saw record numbers of foreign visitors taking advantage of a weak U.S. dollar while domestic tourists cut back on travel.


Foreign wholesalers say this summer looks particularly promising, with demand holding steady and hotels much quicker to cut rates and offer deals.

''We are doing very well,'' said Heike Beck, of New World Travel. She finds discounted rooms in Florida for German vacationers, and says bookings this year are up more than 10 percent over a booming 2008.

''Last year was our best year since we've been in business, which is 30 years,'' she said. ``It's amazing.''

Other wholesalers weren't quite as bullish on the foreign market, but they still report bookings are easily outpacing ones from domestic travelers.

In explaining the continued demand, they point to favorable exchange rates and the global popularity of President Barack Obama, as well as overseas economies less wounded by the economy.

''We're finding that Central European countries -- where people don't live life on credit and didn't have their money tied into the housing boom -- are holding up very well,'' said Adam Rogers, a vice president at wholesaler Allied T Pro in New York. He said Germany, Italy and Switzerland were among the strongest overseas markets.


Ilaria Giudici and Costantini Massimiliano were vacationing in South Florida this week from Milan -- their third U.S. holiday in 12 months. After two trips to New York, this time they booked a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale bookended by stays in Miami Beach.

''This is our third time in Miami,'' Giudici, 33, said from the lobby of the Riu Hotel, a mainstay for the foreign wholesale market. ``Same hotel, same restaurant.''

That would be Nexxt Cafe on Lincoln Road, a favorite stop for the couple.

''I ate the filet mignon,'' she said. ``He had beef ribs with barbecue sauce.''

Hotels tend to shun wholesalers when regular bookings are strong. Foreign wholesalers typically require large blocks of rooms at discounts of at least 20 percent in order to make a profit as they resell rooms through overseas travel agencies.

Now wholesalers say they're finding hotels more willing to turn over dozens if not hundreds of discounted rooms in hopes of filling beds with foreign tourists.

''We've given them more inventory,'' said Walter Banks, owner of the Lago Mar resort in Fort Lauderdale. Foreign travel agencies typically book a quarter of the hotel's summer business, mostly to Dutch, German and British travelers.

Lago Mar's bookings from the United States are getting hurt on all sides -- with corporate meetings down, as well as vacationers. But foreign wholesalers are asking for as many rooms as last year.

''That business has held up pretty well,'' Banks said. ''And I'm seeing some good bookings'' for summer.


No hotel market depends on foreigners more than Miami-Dade, where nearly 50 percent of tourists come from other countries. In Broward, international visitors account for one out of every five tourists.

South Florida's foreign market has helped lessen the blow of a dismal U.S. travel landscape, with companies slashing meeting expenses and consumers insisting on bargains or staying home. This year is the first time Armayor can remember hotels offering him beds during peak weekends like the Miami International Boat Show and the recent Winter Music Festival.

Even hotels that didn't abandon the foreign wholesale business during the boom times now are leaning on the discounted business more.


At the Mimosa, a 60-room condo-hotel in Miami Beach, international visitors used to make up 50 percent of bookings. This year, it's closer to 80 percent, said general manager Erika Bozzo.

She said online travel sites like Expedia and Orbitz are not delivering the bookings they used to, even as the Mimosa offers deals.

''We give promotions on the Web, but it's not working,'' she said on a sunny Friday afternoon that found four guests lounging by the hotel's oceanfront pool.

That leaves her to rely on foreign wholesalers like Armayor, who has seen bookings at the Mimosa increase 22 percent this year.

''We are surviving because of him,'' Bozzo said.

Foreign visitors are key boost to South Florida tourism
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