Visits from European and Japanese tourists increased 181 percent in Utah between 1985 and 1987 - the largest such gain in the nation - a tourism executive said Thursday.

Brad Smith, executive director of The Foremost West, released figures he had compiled that show Utah to be part of a dramatic increase in foreign visits to a five-state western region.The Foremost West, based in Salt Lake City, promotes Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado to overseas markets. Those states had a combined increase of more than 100 percent in overseas tourists during the past two years. Nationally, the average growth was only 38 percent, Smith said.

"We're just starting to see what tourism really means to us," he said. "It is very exciting."

Smith, who has spent 14 years working with the state to promote Utah in foreign countries, said tourists are drawn to the West partly because of the romance of its history.

"We may think of the old West as being a long time ago, but we're still a young area to them (overseas tourists)," he said. "You can still see cowboys here. You can still go to a ranch. You can still ride a horse. You can still see an Indian."

He said a cheap dollar and a large number of tourists returning to the United States for second and third visits is aiding the sudden surge. The average tourist visits the large cities along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts during the first visit to the United States, then visit the West on the next trip, he said.

Joseph Rutherford, state travel council spokesman, said 318,000 overseas tourists visited Utah in 1987, up from 113,000 in 1985. The tourists spent between $63 million and $89 million in the state.

Last year, the state spent $115,589 for various projects to promote itself to overseas foreigners. About $30,000 of that was paid for services provided by The Foremost West.

Arizona leads the West with 877,000 foreign tourists in 1987, according to the Smith's figures.

Most of the tourists appear to be coming from West Germany and other parts of Europe. Japanese tourists are coming to Utah in increasing numbers, but they still lag far behind the Europeans, Smith said.

Tourists spend an average of 26 to 28 days in the West - five to seven of those in Utah. With the dollar trading low against foreign money, tourists are finding they can see and buy more.

"It's cheap. It's a bargain," Smith said. "The United States is still the No. 1 dream destination for the world. Everyone wants to see it."

The number of tourists is expected to increase again in 1988 but will likely peak sometime this year or in 1989, Smith said. "When it does slow down, we believe it will plateau at a high level." We also think Asia will begin to become a good tourism market for us."