According to the International Trade Administration, 66 million international visitors came to the United States in 2012, a 6 percent increase over 2011 numbers. Canada leads all countries visiting the U.S. accounting for 32 percent of international visitors. International tourism generated $153 billion in receipts last year and a $43 billion trade surplus for our nation. The momentum is expected to continue; the International Trade Administration is forecasting that international visitors will increase by 21 percent to more than 80 million by 2017. The U.S. international travel and tourism industry is finally getting the recognition it deserves as an important component of American Gross Domestic Product, exports and employment.
The major growth we are seeing in international travel is no fluke. It is the direct result of some key initiatives that have been executed on in recent years. The 2010 U.S. Travel Promotion Act has increased the awareness of the importance of tourism to our economy and created a public-private marketing powerhouse in Brand USA and their "Discover America" campaign. The Visa Waiver Program has positively influenced travel by making it easier for residents of certain countries to gain entrance the U.S. The United States Departments of Commerce and the Interior presented the National Travel and Tourism strategy to the president in May as a blueprint of making America the top tourist destination in the world.
International travel is big business in the U.S. and could be a key component of driving more visitors to the Lowcountry and increasing property values through real estate demand. According to a 2012 National Association of Realtors lobal Research Report, international buyers purchased $83 billion dollars of U.S. real estate last year. Sales to international buyers are up 24 percent on a year over year basis and 27 percent of Realtors reported working with an international client last year.
Of all the countries where travel and real estate buyers are coming to the U.S., the best opportunity for local Lowcountry travel and real estate demand today comes from our neighbors to the North. U.S. residential real estate sales to Canadians is our No. 1 market, accounting for 24 percent of international sales, up from 11 percent in 2007.
If you live here, you can tell just by driving around that we are a very popular destination for our Canadian friends. It's no coincidence that the biggest event in South Carolina, the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing is sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada. Canadian purchasers of real estate see great value in our location, temperate year-round climate, restaurants, activities and environment. The favorable real estate purchasing power and exchange rate accentuates the value that we offer international buyers. For the good of our tourism based economy and local property values, let's do whatever we can do to attract and enhance the experience of international visitors to the Lowcountry.
Robert Stenhammer has been a resort executive for more than 15 years. He is the president of Hilton Head Accommodations.