Obama heads to Cooperstown to promote U.S. tourism

BY Darlene Superville, Associated Press  May 22, 2014 at 10:25 AM EDT

WASHINGTON — Promoting travel to the U.S. as a job creator, President Barack Obama is planning new steps to make it easier for people from other countries to visit the 50 states and spend money at their hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions and other businesses.

Obama planned to discuss the economic benefits of tourism to the U.S. and the latest steps he is taking to boost it at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, on Thursday.

Obama acted two years ago to speed the processing of tourist visas for visitors from China and Brazil, steps that have dramatically reduced the length of time people from those populous countries have to wait for approval to travel to the U.S., said administration officials who previewed the president’s trip for reporters.

On Thursday he will tackle the flip side of the problem: long waits for processing at U.S. airports and other ports of entry once tourists arrive.

Obama was giving his secretaries of homeland security and commerce four months to come up with a plan to streamline the entry process and reduce wait times. He also wants them to work with the 15 largest U.S. airports, following steps taken by Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago international airports to cut wait times.

“Believe it or not, tourism is an export,” Obama said last week. “And if we make it easier for more foreign visitors to visit and spend money at America’s attractions and unparalleled national parks, that helps local businesses and grows the economy for everyone.”

Before departing for upstate New York, Obama scheduled a White House meeting with travel and tourism industry CEOs and senior executives.

A White House report released Thursday said the number of international visitors has grown from 55 million in 2009 to a record 70 million in 2013, a level of growth that has supported about 175,000 jobs over the past five years. Two years ago, Obama set a goal of welcoming 100 million international visitors a year by the end of 2021.

The State Department issued 9.2 million visas last year, up 42 percent since 2010, the report said.

Visa waiting periods in Brazil and China have dropped from as much as 100 days to less than five on average, the report said.

Obama economic adviser Jeff Zients said Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago made simple changes to reduce wait times, including adjusting staff and introducing automated kiosks for travelers to scan their passports and enter customs declaration information.

From upstate New York, Obama was heading to his Chicago hometown to headline a pair of fundraisers benefiting Democratic Senate candidates.