U.S. Tourism's 'Lost Decade' Cost Some 500,000 Jobs

Industry says easier U.S. visa rules would net 1.3 million new jobs, billions in spending.

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The travel industry today became the latest to slam federal rules and bureaucracy, charging that tough visa rules for potential tourists have robbed the nation of $600 billion and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Two grim facts: More Chinese now visit France than the United States, in part because it's hard to get a U.S. visitors visa. And while the U.S. used to be the destination for 17 percent of the world's tourists in 2000, that's dropped to 12.4 percent and shows no sign of changing.

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"Even as world travel grew by more than 60 million travelers between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. share of the market remained essentially flat. During this 'lost decade,' our economy squandered an opportunity to gain $606 billion in total spending from 78 million additional visitors—enough to support 467,000 more jobs annually," said a new report out this afternoon from the U.S. Travel Association.

"We know that we are not getting our share," said USTA spokesman Robert Bobo.

The key issue: The U.S. is slow to issue visas, especially since 9/11, and visitors from distant nations are going elsewhere. Among the key problems are the post-9/11 requirement that visa applicants be interviewed before traveling and a lack of visa offices. In China, for example, 20 cities with 20 million or more citizens have no U.S. visa office. [Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

To reverse the slide, travel officials today unveiled a broad plan to speed the issuance of visas, potentially leading to the creation of 1.3 million new jobs and additional economic output of over $850 billion.

[See the top 10 cities to find a job.]

The key suggestions on the plan dubbed "Ready for Takeoff" include:

— A presidential directive to boost tourism from countries like China, Brazil, and India.

— Have the State Department do more to promote travel to the United States.

— Hire 440 new consular offices and put them in China, Brazil, and India over the next five years.

— Allow existing visa holders, including many business travelers and student and exchange visitors, to renew visas in the United States instead of returning to their home countries to do so.

— Utilize demand management tools and techniques to analyze and predict periods of high user demand and lower wait times.

The industry, however, gives credit to the Obama administration for realizing the problems and working to boost foreign travel to the United States. Just this week, for example, the agency charged with pushing travel to the United States, the Corporation for Travel Promotion, renamed itself "Brand USA" and plans to launch an advertising and marketing campaign in the spring of 2012 to push the U.S. as a business and vacation hot spot.

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