Clay Olafson looks like the kind of guy you'd have to drag to a mall kicking and screaming. He's stocky and muscular, with tattoos and piercings all over his arms and neck-- not exactly someone you'd expect to travel halfway across the globe form Iceland to shop. But Olfason and his girlfriend Maria have done just that. They flew in to the Twin Cities for a three-day spending spree at the Mall of America. This seemed so hard to believe, I felt timid asking about it.
"If you were tell your friends what you came for, would you actually use the word 'power-shop'?" I asked.
"Definitely!" he replied. "We've got blisters on our legs and swollen feet. This is power shopping I guess."
I met Olafson in the lobby of the Holiday Inn where he was staying. He was waiting for a shuttle to the Mall for one last hurrah before flying back to Iceland. He and his girlfriend got their flight and hotel deal dirt cheap-- less than $300 for the two of them. And the strength of the Euro against the dollar has made the trip even more of a bargain-- they say they can buy at least twice as much stuff as they could in Europe for the same amount of money.
Olafson says so far they've dropped some money on Christmas presents, but they also bought a lot of clothing for themselves at Abercrombie and Fitch and Victoria's Secret.
"I think we spent around $2,000-$3,000," said. "Are you going to talk to Uncle Sam about how much I spent?" he asked with a laugh. "They're going to send you a thank you note," I told him.
Staff at the Holiday Inn say they're definitely appreciative of the wave of foreign tourists-- especially since winter is usually a dead time for Minnesota hotels. The Holiday Inn's Evie Walters says the recent crush of foreign visitors has led to some comical situations.
The hotel staff has had to use as many as four empty rooms at a time just to accommodate all the spoils of their guests' powershopping. And Walters says those bags can be a problem when it's time to head back to the airport.
"They cannot get these suitcases into a shuttle. We call a taxi and a taxi follows a shuttle to the airport, with their suitcases," she says.
According to Doug Killian in the Mall of America's tourism department, the mall usually gets about 2.5 million international shoppers a year. But he says they've seen about 500,000 more foreign visitors than usual over the past few months. And Killian says those visitors tend to drop a lot more money than the average local shopper.
"An international visitor spends 2.5 times more than a local visitor, which is approximately $260 more per visit," Killian says. "They're a very important part of our overall customer base."
Killian says there's more to the recent influx of foreigners than just a low dollar. He also points to international marketing efforts that have caught the attention of shoppers abroad.
What's more, the foreign tourism boom isn't just happening here; it can be seen around the country.
"A lot of the growth we've seen is really just catching up to where the market had been prior to 9/11," says Wes Rohl from Temple University's School of Tourism and Hospitality Management.
He says government tourism figures indicate the last peak of foreign visitors to the U.S. was in 2000-- when about 51 million people came. After years of declines, the number of visitors is only now climbing back to that high point.
So Rohl sees the surge in foreign visitors to the Mall of America and other big shopping destinations as part of a bigger trend, whose economic benefits might not be widely evident just yet.
"The tide will have to rise for a while longer before a majority of individual businesses really see the impact," Rohl says. "But the signs seem to be pointing to continued growth over the next several years in fact."
In the meantime, Clay Olafson and his girlfriend are trying to figure out how to pace themselves on their last day of shopping at the Mall of America. They make their way past Salvation Army bell ringers at the door, and decide pretty quickly where to head next.
"I think we're going straight to the massage," Olafson says.
Their three days of powershopping have worn them out. They say they need to recover before boarding their plane back to Iceland in a few hours.