Obama to Save Economy With…More Tourist Visas?

Streamlining visa processes could help the U.S. rebuild market share, starting with China, Brazil.

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After putting the kibosh on the Keystone XL pipeline project, which some estimate would have created 20,000 high-paying construction jobs, President Obama showed up at the Magic Kingdom to do damage control Thursday, touting plans to boost the economy by ramping up tourism in the United States.

Among other things, the president's plans would make it easier for Brazilian and Chinese visitors to get tourist visas. Foreign tourists want to visit the United States, Obama said, and the money they spend cavorting around the country will give the economy a jolt and create jobs.

If you thought for a nanosecond that Obama's decision to deliver a rousing speech on jobs and the economy in a swing state a week before GOP presidential candidates square off in the primary escaped anyone, you're wrong.

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"We need to call this visit today what it actually is," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a conference call. "It's a campaign trip to a very important battleground state of Florida where the president, quite frankly, is doing very poorly in the polls at best."

Which begs the question: How much will the president's plans to dole out more tourist visas actually help the economy and how much is just a strategic campaign speech designed to remind voters that Obama cares about middle- and low-income workers?

The U.S. tourism and travel industries accounted for almost 7.5 million jobs in 2010, according to the White House, with international travel to the States supporting more than 1.2 million jobs. The new initiatives to boost travel could tack on another million jobs over the next 10 years, if the U.S. can establish itself as a hot destination, the White House added.

And that's really the key, experts say: making America an easy and desirable destination for foreigners to come and spend their money. Over the past 10 years, the U.S. has seen a 5 percent drop in long-haul travel arrivals, which means losing the money travelers bring from abroad.

"We've seen a kind of erosion where we're losing market share," says Terry Dale, president of the United States Tour Operators Association. "Anything that can be done to help build back those numbers is good for the economy and good for job creation."

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There's opportunity to recapture some of the market share and economic benefit, especially from emerging economies such as Brazil and China, countries that posted 30 percent and 40 percent increases in travel expenditures. But it won't be easy. The world is a much bigger place these days, and travelers have many more options when it comes to picking destinations.

"We need to be more competitive," says Kristin Lamoureux, director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University. "Hollywood is a great marketing tool, but there are so many more places to go and the notion that the U.S. was kind of 'the place to go' has [diminished]. People are saying, 'Well, if we can't go to the U.S., we'll go other places."

Streamlining the visa application process for two travel-hungry countries should help remove some barriers when it comes to visiting the U.S., Lamoureux says. "It's smart to focus on Brazil and China," she adds.

mhandley@usnews.com

Twitter: @mmhandley