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May 11–WASHINGTON — Efforts by the White House to boost international tourism appear to be paying off, as 4.2 million foreign visitors traveled to the U.S. in February — a nine percent increase from February 2011 and the 11th straight month that global travel to America has risen.
The sunny statistics were unveiled Thursday by the Obama administration during a rollout of its new national tourism plan, which focuses on “reducing institutional barriers” to global travel and better marketing of U.S. destinations aboard. The administration said travel and tourist-related spending by foreigners in the U.S. topped $153 billion last year and accounted for 7.6 million jobs.
“We want the world to know there has never been a better time to visit the U.S., and America truly is open for business,” said Commerce Secretary John Bryson.
The new policy includes plans to expand the number of countries whose citizens can travel here without a visa — there are now 36 — and launching an international ad campaign funded, in part, by fees imposed on foreign travelers.
The goal is to lure 100 million foreign tourists to the U.S. annually by the end of 2021, a big jump from the 62 million that visited in 2011.
“Our goal is simple, yet bold,” notes the plan, put together by a constellation of federal agencies.
The new strategy builds on executive orders issued by President Barack Obama in January during a visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando.
Of those orders, the most significant was Obama’s call to reduce the time it takes to get a travel visa in booming economies such as Brazil — a vital market for Florida. As recently as last year, Brazilians could wait as long as 100 days.
Since then, State Department officials say, wait times have dropped dramatically — with travelers getting appointments in less than a week with U.S. consulates in Brasilia, Recife and Rio de Janeiro.
“In most cases, in most places of the country, it’s down to two weeks,” said Thomas Nides, a deputy secretary of state. “That is an unbelievable change from what it was.”
To do that, Nides said the agency has added dozens more consular employees in Brazil to help process visas. And it no longer requires low-risk visitors — specifically, tourists younger than 16 and older than 65 — to have face-to-face interviews in order to get their traveling papers.
“The chatter in Brazil as it relates to what the president did was really positive,” said Chris Thompson, president and CEO of Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing company.
He said Florida already has seen a rise in Brazilian visitors and that he expects even more growth with the reduction of visa wait times. “Overall, we are very optimistic about the future with Brazil,” he said.
Flight records from Orlando International Airport show the number of Brazilian visitors has more than doubled in the first quarter of 2012 from a year ago. In February, TAM Brazilian Airlines flew more than 10,000 visitors into Orlando versus fewer than 5,000 a year earlier.
Some lawmakers, however, want to see more done.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has co-sponsored legislation, dubbed the JOLT Act, that aims to lower visa wait times even more, in part by offering VIP processing that would allow people to pay to speed up visa applications and by dispatching “mobile interview units” that can travel to foreign cities that don’t have a U.S. consulate or embassy.
“President Obama and Congress should build on the recent bipartisan momentum … [and] move forward with the JOLT Act and help bring more foreign tourist dollars to Florida and the U.S,” Rubio said recently.
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