PARIS (Reuters) – The weak dollar knocked Americans from their place as Paris’ top foreign visitors in the first half of the year but tourism from oil-rich Middle Eastern countries surged, a report released on Tuesday showed.
Data from the Paris tourism office showed U.S. visitors spent 20.1 percent fewer nights in the city during the first six months of 2008 compared with the same period a year earlier.
“The last time we saw such a drop from the U.S. must have been over 15 years ago,” Paul Roll, head of the tourism office, told a news conference upon announcing the figures.
“Clearly it’s due to the exchange rate, but overall Paris is doing quite well — urban tourism in general is very strong because it is easy to visit cities on short trips,” he added.
British tourists, many taking advantage of the Eurostar and low-cost flights for weekend visits, overtook Americans as the city’s top visitors despite the euro’s strengthening against the pound, the officials said.
But the biggest single increase in foreign tourists came from the Middle East, a bloc that registered a 23.7 percent jump on the year as oil spiked to a new record of more than $148 a barrel. There was no breakdown available on which Middle East countries the tourists came from.
France is the world’s top tourist destination, drawing nearly 82 million visitors a year.
Paris has the most expensive “high-end” four-star hotels in western Europe, with an average price of 388 euros ($570.80) per night, the report said, citing a study by auditors MKG Hospitality.
Overall, hotel occupancy increased 1.4 percent compared to the same period a year earlier, a trend expected to last through the second half of the year and top 2007’s record.
The figures showed French tourists favored their capital far more than other nationalities, racking up 6.2 million nights spent in hotels there, followed by the British with 1.8 million, Americans with 1.7 million, and Italians with 1 million. Middle East visitors came in 11th.
Visits by Japanese tourists, traditionally an important bloc, fell 8.1 percent over the period.
Chinese tourism fell by 6.7 percent, but Roll said this had more to do with domestic affairs than with a boycott of France called for by some Chinese after demonstrators clashed with police at the Paris leg of the Olympic torch rally.
“Even before the boycott, we were projecting fewer Chinese visitors in 2008 because they would be more interested in the Olympics in China,” Roll said.