(This story has been updated.)
ORLANDO, Fla. — President Obama announced plans Thursday to boost tourism by speeding up the visa process for foreign tourists to the United States, focusing on countries with rapidly growing economies and large populations such as China, India and Brazil.
With most of Obama’s $447 billion jobs plan rejected by Congress last fall, the administration hopes the smaller-scale orders from the White House will demonstrate Obama’s determination to speed up the sluggish financial recovery.
“We’re all here today to tell the world America is open for business,” Obama said before a small invited audience at the amusement park, with the Magic Kingdom castle in the background. “I want the United States to be the top tourist destination in the world.”
Republicans ridiculed Obama’s visit.
“I’m afraid he’s been speaking from fantasyland for some time now,” GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said. “He continues to speak about his solid economic record, and as you know, that’s out of touch with reality.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, charged that the plan would jeopardize national security.
“The president’s proposal flies in the face of the law we’ve had on the books because of 9/11,” he said in a statement. “Only two of the 19 hijackers were interviewed by consular officers, so Congress mandated that all visa applicants be interviewed, with very few exceptions. Once again, this administration is pushing the envelope and using their authority beyond congressional intent, allowing untold numbers of foreign nationals to bypass the in-person interview requirement, and risking national security in the process.”
Tourism represented 2.7 percent of U.S. GDP and 7.5 million jobs in 2010, according to the White House. International travel supports 1.2 million jobs in the United States.
Yet the U.S. market share of global travel has declined markedly in the past decade, falling from 17 percent to 12.4 percent, the U.S. Travel Association said.
In his remarks, Obama described tourism to “iconic American cities” as an important element of economic growth, especially as citizens of emerging foreign economies have more disposable income. The White House said the average foreign tourist spends $4,000 per visit to the United States.
Obama’s proposal aims to open more U.S. consulates and increase non-immigrant visa processing in China and Brazil by 40 percent this year.
He vowed to ensure that homeland security is maintained even if tourist applications are processed in a faster manner.
“The more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work. It’s that simple,” Obama said.
“Obviously, our national security is a top priority,” he added. “We will always protect our borders and our shores and our tourist destinations from people who want to do us harm. And unfortunately, such people exist, and that’s not going to change. But we also want to get more international tourists coming to America. And there’s no reason why we can’t do both.”
Obama’s appearance in Florida, a key electoral swing state, comes as his reelection campaign ramps up and just days before Republican presidential candidates will flood the state in advance of the Jan. 31 GOP primary.
He gave a brief 10-minute speech; later Thursday he was to fly to New York City for three campaign fundraisers. The president is planning to tour five other battleground states next week after his State of the Union address.