WASHINGTON (AP) _ Tapping a last avenue for gift-giving, outside interests spent $4.6 million this year to send members of Congress and their staffs across the country and around the world in the name of fact-finding.

Destinations included domestic tourist spots like Pebble Beach, Calif., and Hilton Head, S.C., as well as Asia and European capitals. Foreign governments, corporate giants, think tanks, universities picked up the tab 2,978 times from January to mid-December.

The Associated Press used a computer to analyze disclosure records filed under an ethics law that took effect Jan. 1 and banned most gifts to members of Congress. The law made an exception for travel involving meetings, speeches and ``fact-finding'' connected with the duties of lawmakers and their aides.

``These trips are the last vestige of the social interaction that used to be the stock in trade'' of lobbyists, said Ron Shaiko, who teaches lobbying at American University. ``Whether it's having dinner, some leisure time in the afternoon, or sitting on the plane, this gives them face time with a captive audience.''

This year's travel ranged from the exotic _ a 10-day trip to Zimbabwe by Rep. Jack Fields, R-Texas, that cost $16,250 _ to the drab: A congressional staffer took a day trip to suburban Fairfax, Va., and dropped $9 for lunch.

Other congressional travelers heard about Taiwan's problems firsthand, saw a proposed nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada and attended industry conventions from San Diego to New York.

Among the most active travel sponsors:

_The Securities Industry Association, which invited 24 congressional officials to New York, Boca Raton, Fla., and Hot Springs, Va., for meetings.

_Farm groups, which sponsored tours of farms and agribusinesses in Kentucky, Minnesota and California.

_The sugar industry, which took staff members to Florida and New Orleans to learn about cane processing at a time when sugar's price-support program was threatened.

Despite the new ethics rules, free travel remains a wide-open perquisite of working on Capitol Hill. The rules require only that such trips be connected with the official duties of a lawmaker or staff member and that they be disclosed within 30 days of their completion.

The trips afford special interests an opportunity to make personal pitches.

For instance, American Electric Power Co. lobbyist Bruce Beam arranged to meet Holly Propst, a top aide to Rep. Dan Schaefer, R-Colo., at the airport in November to accompany her on a trip to Columbus, Ohio, to meet with corporate officials.

Schaefer is author of a bill to revamp competition in the electric power industry, expected to be a hot topic in Congress next year.

The American College of Surgeons spent just over $10,000 to bring 13 key health aides to teaching hospitals in Tampa, Fla., Chapel Hill, N.C., and Dallas.

``We dressed them in scrubs, trooped them through the operating room and had them talk to residents in the emergency room,'' said Dr. Jim Valentine of Parkland Memorial Hospital.

He said he and other surgeons have tried coming to Washington to argue for a bigger share of federal Medicare dollars, but ``it's not very effective.''

``We're talking with legislative aides who are watching their watch the whole time. It made us all a little bit skeptical.''

The most sumptuous trips are the members-only jaunts financed by the Aspen Institute.

This year's forays included Bermuda, Russia, Portugal, Italy, England and Palm Beach, Fla. The institute, financed by foundations, individuals and corporations, spent $338,725 to send members of the House and Senate and their spouses to study trade, education and foreign policy.

An itinerary for the Palm Beach trip showed meetings in the morning, then free time for the lawmakers and their spouses all afternoon on both days.

The most popular domestic destinations were California, host for 265 visits by lawmakers and their aides, and Florida, 213 trips. New York, close-by Virginia and Maryland, Texas and Nevada were other frequent stops.

The most frequent traveler, Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., had a calendar befitting a celebrity.

She made 42 trips totaling $48,259, mostly to speak to university and women's groups or for media interviews.

Another travel champion was Kenneth Kies, a former tax lobbyist who now is chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, an expert body that does analysis for congressional tax writers. Kies took 34 trips costing $57,406 during the year.

Speaking duties took Kies twice to France: to Cannes for three days in November and to Paris this month for an eight-day stay.

``I'm not surprised'' to be at the top of the list, Kies said: ``We have a fairly in-depth knowledge of tax law, and taxes are at the top of many people's agenda.''

As a lobbyist, Kies said he spoke frequently to groups about tax policy. But he acknowledged that ``people find what I say now far more important than when I was a private lawyer.''

The travel included four trips to meet with clients of his former law firm, Baker & Hostetler, in Houston, Orlando, Fla., and Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.

Kies said he saw no conflict in those engagements and said he has ``very little contact with my former law firm on any matters before the committee.''

Overall, Kies' boss, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, authorized 132 trips _ the most of any member.

``It's pretty useful to get outside the Beltway and talk to practitioners and to affected taxpayers,'' Kies said. ``We learn about things that require attention legislatively.''

The Association of American Railroads spent $27,910 last spring to take six members of the House Transportation Committee and two other Congress members to Pebble Beach, Calif., for stays ranging from three to six days.

The purpose? ``To discuss the condition of the railroad industry,'' as one lawmaker described it on his disclosure form.

Private interests also paid for travel with no apparent commercial tie, including foundations that financed the trips of election observers to Nicaragua, Russia and Sierra Leone.

Trips to Asia dominated foreign travel.