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Region rates high in worldwide allure Buffalo Niagara 20th in U.S. as magnet for international tourists

The Buffalo Niagara region was a strong draw for international tourists last year, placing among the Top 20 U.S. destinations for the first time in a national survey, local tourism officials said.

The rankings, based on an annual survey by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, counted visitors from outside the United States, Canada and Mexico. Buffalo Niagara was No. 20 on the list, attracting an estimated 335,000 overseas tourists, according to the survey.

"We are pleased to receive confirmation that our worldwide sales efforts have paid off," John H. Percy Jr., president and CEO of Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., said in a statement.

The survey results are coming out just as the summer tourism season unofficially gets under way and Niagara Falls prepares for Nik Wallenda's wire-walk June 15.

The Commerce Department survey said Buffalo Niagara's market share of overseas visitors was 1.2 percent, compared with 33 percent for New York City, the No. 1 U.S. destination on the list.

The survey was based on responses from more than 38,000 people last year as they prepared to fly home after visiting the United States. Respondents were asked to list which cities they visited during their stay.

Peter V. Burakowski, communications manager for Visit Buffalo Niagara, said he followed up with a Commerce Department researcher to see if Buffalo Niagara had ever before made the Top 20 for overseas visitors. He was told that Buffalo Niagara had not, in annual surveys going back to 1997.

The survey's data did not shed light on what led Buffalo Niagara to make the Top 20 in 2011, Burakowski said.

But anecdotally, Erie County attractions such as Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Roycroft Campus and the Darwin Martin House are reporting visits from international tourists, he said.

"The messaging we've been putting out in the past two years is strongly pushing what we feel are Buffalo's differentiating characteristics," such as its architectural and cultural attractions, Burakowski said.

For example, in the last six months, the Albright-Knox has been the "primary destination" for visitors from several European and Asian countries, including Switzerland, Germany, England, Japan and Korea, Visit Buffalo Niagara said.

And in Niagara Falls, the cataracts have long been a draw for international travelers, along with other tourist attractions in Niagara County.

Michael K. Murphy, who co-owns Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruises with his wife, Sharon, said the attraction has hosted visitors from around the world, including South America, Malaysia, Singapore and Europe. "We don't have enough," he said. "We could always use more."

Murphy said that he works with local tourism groups to boost his attraction's visibility and that he enjoys hearing the perspective of the international visitors. "They're amazed that the canal is not being used more than it is now," he said.

Visit Buffalo Niagara takes a number of steps to attract international visitors, such as participating in trade shows to connect with tourism representatives from around the world, Burakowski said. The organization also buys ads in the Destinations of New York State seven-language guide, which is used in other countries, and assists the "I [heart] New York" program with tours for media from overseas.

Buffalo Niagara was ranked one spot behind Anaheim, Calif. -- home of Disneyland -- on the survey. Buffalo Niagara's comparative visitor figures for 2010 were not available: The sample for that year was too small for a public estimate, according to the Office of Travel and Tourism's policy.

A Commerce Department spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Statewide, New York State was ranked as the No. 1 U.S. state or territory for overseas visitors in 2011, with a market share of 34.1 percent. Its total visitation increased by 10 percent from the previous year.

Overseas arrivals to the United States last year increased by 6 percent, compared with 2010, the Commerce Department said. It was the second straight year of improvement, after a decline in 2009.

In a report last year, the Commerce Department listed Britain, Japan, Germany, Brazil and France as the top sources, respectively, of foreign travelers to the United States, after Canada and Mexico.