Politics & Government

At Disney World, Obama touts tourism initiatives to boost jobs

Standing before a sun-splashed Cinderella’s castle, President Barack Obama on Thursday called for America to become the world’s top travel destination with a program that could significantly increase tourism to South Florida.

“America is open for business,” Obama announced at Walt Disney World near Orlando. “We want to welcome you,” he said.

The president also issued an executive order speeding visitor visas for Brazil and China and took additional steps that include promoting national parks and adding business executives to a tourism advisory board.

The goal is to significantly increase travel and tourism in the United States. The White House said that more than 1 million jobs could be created over the next decade, according to industry projections, if the U.S. increases its share of the international travel market.

“The more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work. It’s that simple,” Obama said.

Tourism is a key component of Florida’s economy, and tourism jobs have rebounded far more quickly in South Florida than jobs in most other industries.

The region’s $13 billion hospitality industry employs about 182,000 people in South Florida, according to federal figures, amounting to about 10 percent of Broward’s workforce and 12 percent of Miami-Dade’s. That does not include employees of the retail industry, much of which depends on tourism dollars. In 2010, the hospitality industry accounted for about 5 percent of the region’s $260 billion economy, though adding in foreign dollars in real estate, auto purchases, and shopping would make that amount bigger.

Nationally, the White House said the travel and tourism industry represent 2.7 percent of gross domestic product and 7.5 million jobs in 2010. But the U.S. share of spending by international travelers fell from 17 percent to 11 percent between 2000 and 2010, due to increased competition and changes in global development, as well as security measures imposed after Sept. 11, 2001, according to the White House.

Beyond the economic case, Obama’s trip to Florida was the latest bid by the White House and his campaign to steal a share of the spotlight from Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination in this battleground state. The Florida Republican primary takes place on Jan. 31.

The president’s speech Thursday was far different from a 2009 appearance when he urged companies not to plan meetings in luxury resorts after an AIG subsidiary spent more than $440,000 on a meeting shortly after the firm was bailed out by taxpayers. Since then, industry representatives have met frequently with the White House to emphasize the importance of tourism to the economy, and officials from tourism organizations, retail-trade groups, and American Airlines applauded Thursday’s announcement. Under nearly all previous administrations, tourism promotion has been left to regional agencies and the private sector.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Tourism Promotion Act, an industry-led imitative establishing a public-private partnership to promote the U.S. as a destination. Funding for a $200 million campaign slated for launch later this year comes from a $14 per person fee charged to visitors from visa-waiver countries.

His directive to increase visitor visa processing capacity by 40 percent in Brazil by the end of 2012 and cut the time period for visa interviews could have an “immediate and significant” impact on South Florida’s economy, where Brazilians spent more than $1.5 billion in 2010 alone, said local tourism officials.

Currently, Brazilians sometimes wait more than three months to get the face-to-face interview with U.S. officials required to get a non-resident visa. The Obama initiative calls for dropping that waiting period to 21 days in most cases. And they can have those interviews in only four cities, which often requires an expensive trip in itself.

As a result, many Brazilians simply ignore the U.S. and travel elsewhere, said Neil Emerson, vice president of Hotelbeds, which sells travel services to Brazilian travel agents. Booking groups is nearly impossible, said other travel companies.

The changes ordered Thursday by Obama could be obvious by spring, said Rolando Aedo, senior vice president of marketing for Miami-Dade’s public-private tourism promotion agency. Unlike Europeans, who plan trips to the U.S. months in advance, Brazilians are likely to book journeys to the U.S. much closer to the time of travel. The change comes in time to snag the U.S. summer months, a popular travel time for Brazilians.

More than 555,000 Brazilians visited Miami-Dade in 2010, with some 300,000 Brazilian overnight visitors to Broward County. In 2011, those numbers increased by 15 percent during the first nine months of the year in Miami-Dade and climbed an estimated 50 percent in Broward County.

For William Talbert, CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau and chair of an industry effort on increasing tourism from Brazil, the ultimate goal is to get Brazil on the list of “visa waiver” countries whose citizens can apply for U.S. visitor visas online. Such a change is expected to double Brazilian visitorship to Miami-Dade within a year, Talbert said.

Currently 36 countries are on the U.S. visa waiver list. They include South Korea and Slovenia but none in Latin America.

Adding Brazil to that list could only be good news for hotels like the W South Beach, where Brazilians make up the No. 1 source of foreign visitors, said general manager George Cozonis.

“We know for every traveler that is able to get a visa many who are not,’’ he said. “Brazilians are very affluent. Their per diem spending is significant. It’s a country of 200 million people, and 40 million of them are affluent and can afford to travel. Miami and New York are their top two destinations. Our area would benefit.’’

Thursday’s executive order aims to expand the visa waiver program while maintaining current security standards; boost non-immigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent this year; direct an interagency task force to develop recommendations for a National Travel and Tourism Strategy, including promoting national parks and other sites.

The president also appointed a new group of executives to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, including Olga Ramudo, president and CEO of Express Travel in Miami-Dade.

Miami Herald economy writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report, which also used material from The Associated Press.

To read more, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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