Washington: President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered the streamlining of applications for foreign tourist visas, focused heavily on increasingly affluent Chinese and Brazilian visitors, in an effort to boost US tourism and create jobs.
The package of mostly modest reforms were the latest measures rolled out by Obama to show voters he is serious about boosting the still-sluggish labor market and will act on his own whenever possible in the face of election-year gridlock in Congress.
Obama planned to formally unveil the steps to cut through red tape and make it easier for foreign tourists to come to the United States as he visited Disney World in Orlando on Thursday.
Florida, which relies heavily on foreign tourist dollars, is a political battleground state considered crucial to Obama's re-election prospects, and recent polls have shown his popularity slipping there.
"Every year, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world come and visit America," Obama said in a statement. "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."
The White House estimated that more than 1 million US jobs could be created in the next decade if the country increased its share of the international travel market.
Foreign visitors generated USD 134 billion in 2010, making it the largest US service export industry, the Commerce Department said. The number of tourists from emerging economies with growing middle classes like China, Brazil and India is projected to grow sharply in coming years.
The American tourism industry and business groups have long advocated an easing of visa restrictions that were tightened in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Among the steps announced on Thursday: * An order for the government to increase non-immigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent in 2012, ensuring that 80 percent of applicants are interviewed within three weeks and expanding visa waiver programs.
A pilot program to simplify and speed the visa process for applicants from China and Brazil, including the ability to waive interviews for low-risk applicants.
* Addition of Taiwan to the list of so-called visa-waiver countries.
* Creation of an interagency task force to develop recommendations for expanding international tourism.
First Published: Thursday, January 19, 2012, 23:21