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Travel experts applaud Obama's pro-tourism measures

President Obama speaks to a crowd gathered at Disney World to announce that he has called on his administration to prepare a plan that would grow US tourism and create jobs within that industry.

President Barack Obama announced plans Thursday to ease visa requirements for tourists from certain countries, a move applauded as long overdue by travel experts.

“Hallelujah,” said Jay Caulk, general manager of The Travel Experts in Pompano Beach, Fla. “Tourism dollars represent a major chunk in the gross national product in the country we live in. It’s most necessary to keep that income coming in. I applaud him for doing this.”

His company works with a lot of travelers who don’t live in the United States, and the easier you make it for people to get here, the easier it is for those people to drop their cash in this country, Caulk said. And that cash supports many vital industries and jobs.

“Tourism is a wide-reaching octopus — it means hotels, bus companies, food, bars, local attractions,” he said. “The list just goes on and on and on.”

The president’s plan to boost tourism by making it easier for tourists — especially from China and Brazil — to visit, also includes promoting travel to national parks and adding business executives to a tourism advisory board. That occurs against a backdrop of sour economic conditions that has led many states, such as Washington and Colorado, to close their tourism offices to save money.

“Every year, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world come and visit America,” Obama said in his speech about the plan, later released by the White House. “And the more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work. We need to help businesses all across the country grow and create jobs; compete and win. That’s how we’re going to rebuild an economy where hard work pays off, where responsibility is rewarded, and where anyone can make it if they try.”

The president unveiled his plans at Disney World in Orlando, with the Magic Kingdom as his backdrop.

The U.S. tourism and travel industry is a substantial component of U.S. GDP and employment, representing 2.7 percent of GDP and 7.5 million jobs in 2010 — with international travel to the United States supporting 1.2 million jobs alone, according to the White House. The travel and tourism industry projects that more than 1 million American jobs could be created over the next decade if the U.S. increased its share of the international travel market.

Right now, it’s often a real pain for tourists from the heavily populated countries of China and Brazil to visit the United States, according to Doug Shifflet, chairman and CEO of D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a company that conducts major research into the travel industry.

“If it’s not a visa waiver country ... that has been previously set up, [a tourist] has to go for a personal interview,” Shifflet said. “Then you have to go back again. And if you don’t live near a major embassy for the country you want to visit, it becomes quite difficult.”

That can mean it takes months for someone in Brazil to come to the United States for a visit, so many potential tourists simply won’t make the effort. That also means other countries are picking up tourists who might otherwise be visiting here, spending their hard cash, he said.

“When you look at alternative places, the French, the British, make it so easy to get visas,” Shifflet said.

There is a lot of money at stake. The number of travelers from emerging economies with growing middle classes — such as China, Brazil and India — is projected to grow by 135 percent, 274 percent, and 50 percent respectively by 2016 when compared to 2010. Nationals from these three countries already contributed approximately $15 billion dollars and thousands of jobs to the U.S. economy in 2010, the White House said.

Chinese and Brazilian tourists currently spend more than $6,000 and $5,000 apiece per trip, according to the Department of Commerce.

Research by Shifflet's company indicates there is pent up demand for tourism visits to the United States by foreign travelers frustrated by visa requirements, Shifflet said. “There are large numbers of additional people who haven’t been coming here but would like to come here,” he said. “Let’s walk them in and take their money.”

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