WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is pitching a plan for boosting tourism to the U.S. by speeding visa processing, choosing Walt Disney World near Orlando for the announcement just as Republicans prepare to blanket Florida ahead of the state's Jan. 31 presidential primary.
Obama issued an executive order Thursday aiming to increase tourist visa processing in China and Brazil and take other steps including promoting national parks and adding business executives to a tourism advisory board.
The goal is to significantly increase travel and tourism in the U.S. The White House says that more than 1 million U.S. jobs could be created over the next decade, according to industry projections, if the U.S. increases its share of the international travel market.
"Every year, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world come and visit America. And the more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work," Obama said in a statement before boarding Air Force One to Florida.
Thursday's trip is the latest attempt by the White House and Obama campaign to steal a share of the spotlight from Republicans in the midst of their nomination fight. Obama held a live video conference with Iowa voters during the Republican caucus, Vice President Joe Biden held a similar event with voters in New Hampshire as primary votes there were being counted, and next week Obama will travel to Nevada, which follows Florida on the primary calendar.
Obama's high-profile trip to Florida could help him counter attacks on his record lobbed by Republican presidential candidates during stops across the state, and in television ads already running in Florida. And it allows Obama to lay the groundwork for the general election campaign in Florida, a key political battleground he carried in 2008.
Republican front-runner Mitt Romney already has been testing economic attacks on Obama in Florida. In an open letter to the president Thursday running as an ad in the Tampa Bay Times, Romney wrote: "Welcome to Florida. I have a simple question for you: Where are the jobs? .... Mr. President, forgive me for being blunt, but when it comes to economic affairs, you're out of your depth. Unlike you, I am not a career politician."
An accompanying Romney Web video shows people complaining of high unemployment in Florida and accusing Obama of "empty promises."
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed the president in a near-statistical tie with Romney in Florida in a head-to-head matchup.
Tourism is a key component of the economy in Florida, which is burdened by 10 percent unemployment and rampant home foreclosures. Thursday's tourism and travel announcement is part of the president's "We Can't Wait" initiative aimed at promoting executive actions Obama can take without congressional approval.
The White House says the travel and tourism industry represented 2.7 percent of gross domestic product and 7.5 million jobs in 2010. But the U.S. share of spending by international travelers fell from 17 percent to 11 percent between 2000 and 2010, due to increased competition and changes in global development, as well as security measures imposed after Sept. 11, 2001, according to the White House.
Obama's executive order aims to: boost non-immigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent this year; expand a Visa Waiver Program that allows participating nationals to travel to the U.S. for stays of 90 days or less without a visa; appoint a new group of chief executives to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board; and direct an interagency task force to develop recommendations for a National Travel and Tourism Strategy, including promoting national parks and other sites.
The White House insists the president's trip to Florida is not purely political. Obama spokesman Jay Carney said that if the White House couldn't travel to any state with a primary, "that would make it impossible for us."
From Florida, Obama will fly to New York City for four glitzy campaign fundraisers, including an event at the famed Apollo Theater featuring performances by Al Green and India Arie. Tickets to that fundraiser start at $100.
The president also will attend a $35,800 per ticket fundraiser at the home of director Spike Lee, and two small fundraisers at Daniel, an exclusive Manhattan restaurant. Tickets start at $5,000 for the first restaurant fundraiser and $15,000 for the second.
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