Some Republicans accused the president of dropping in on the Sunshine State for political reasons – the potentially decisive Republican primary there is Jan. 31 – but Mr. Obama’s visit seemed more directly aimed at wooing Chinese and Brazilian vacationers and their wallets than at wooing American voters.
“Look at where we are. We’ve got the most entertaining destinations in the world, this is the land of extraordinary natural wonders,” the president said as he spoke with the Magic Kingdom’s signature castle as his backdrop. “We want to welcome you,” he said, speaking to world’s burgeoning tourist population, before adding: “The more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work. It’s that simple.”
The speech marked Obama’s signing of an executive order aimed at facilitating the processing of Chinese and Brazilian tourist visas in particular and at speeding up the visa process for low-risk applicants in general. The initiative is expected to benefit “tens of thousands of applicants in Brazil and China … encouraging them to visit the United States again,” the State Department said in a statement.
The US travel industry has warned over recent years that foreign tourists, especially those from newly prosperous countries like Brazil and China, are increasingly dropping the US from their travel plans because of onerous visa processes and long delays. Stories abound of free-spending travelers who, when faced with a choice between waiting a day for a tourist visa to Europe or several weeks for one to the US, logically opt for the former.
The travel industry lauded Thursday’s action.
“Every 35 international visitors we welcome to the US generate one American job that can’t be outsourced,” says Roger Dow, president of the US Travel Association. Travel and tourism support 14 million US jobs, the association says, making the sector one of the country’s top 10 sectors.
The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that the average “long-haul” tourist plunks down about $4,000 on an overseas trip.
International travel to the US took a hit after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, leading to what the industry calls the “lost decade.” The US share of all international travel declined from 17 percent in 2000 to just more than 12 percent in 2010, the tourism industry says, costing the US nearly 80 million overseas arrivals, $37 billion in tax revenues, and more than 467,000 jobs.
The White House, claiming a modest increase in the US take of international travel could mean a million new jobs, insisted the president’s trip was part of an economic initiative and not political. But the trip fit a pattern of the president making campaign jaunts to states at about the same time they are choosing among the Republican presidential candidates.
In any case, the Republicans had some fun with Obama’s stroll down Disney’s Main Street. The front-runner for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney, said there was nothing new about Obama’s trip to Disney World, “because, I’m afraid, he’s been speaking from Fantasyland for some time now.”