In addition, Gutierrez said, the country collected a record $107.4 billion in travel receipts in 2006, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. An estimated 51.1 million people from other countries visited the United States last year, just under the 51.2 million America hosted in 2000 and up 1.9 million from 2005.
Overseas tourism hit a two-year freefall in 2002 and 2003, culminating in a 19 percent drop from pre-Sept. 11 numbers.
"We have recovered from that, and it's just a great achievement that 2006 actually exceeded the pre-9/11 numbers (in receipts)," Gutierrez said in a telephone interview.
He was in Orlando to visit a theme park in conjunction with the tourism announcement.
But the big increases aren't happening everywhere, including here. Last year, Florida had a slight drop in foreign visitors from countries other than Mexico and Canada, to 4.3 million from 4.4 million in 2005. A small increase in Canadian tourists kept the state's overall international traffic in 2006 about the same as the year before.
However, Florida officials are expecting 2006 data still being analyzed to show a nearly 5 percent drop in visitors from the United Kingdom, the state's No. 2 source of international tourists.
Long term, the Commerce Department forecast a 21 percent increase at the national level in foreign visitors over the next five years to 61.6 million in 2011. Particularly sharp growth is expected from Brazil, China and India.
Nine countries, according to the department, sent more tourists to the U.S. in 2006 than they ever had before: Mexico, South Korea, Australia, Spain, Ireland, India, China, Denmark and the Dominican Republic.
The majority of U.S. visitors — 57 percent — came from Canada and Mexico.
For every year since 1989, Gutierrez said, the U.S. has recorded a tourism surplus, meaning that foreigners spend more here than Americans do traveling abroad. In 2006, that surplus was $7.3 billion.