“These folks are shopping in our malls, eating in our restaurants,” Sorenson said. “They are taking back both goods that they acquired here and memories that they acquired here, which hopefully will make them much more positive about the United States.”
In October, DeMint and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) issued a report accusing Brand USA of waste and political patronage. The report said Brand USA threw an needlessly lavish launch party in London last year and has a board stocked with major Democratic donors.
Brand USA officials said the launch was held at the world’s largest English-speaking travel trade show and made “good business sense.” They said all board members are experienced travel industry leaders appointed by the secretary of commerce in a “politically neutral process.”
The report criticized what Brand USA was claiming as “in-kind” contributions when seeking matching federal funds. It said Brand USA had claimed that newspaper stories or television interviews about Brand USA’s activities had a value that could be used to claim matching funds. For example, it said, Brand USA claimed a segment on Travel Channel International had an in-kind value of $4.9 million.
Madison, the Brand USA spokeswoman, said all such in-kind contribution requests have been withdrawn. She said Brand USA officials are working with the Commerce Department, which approves the organization’s requests for matching funds, to create clearer guidelines for in-kind contributions.
“I think clearly there are hiccups that the Brand USA team went through in the early stages,” Sorenson said. “I think if we could start the whole thing all over, some of those hiccups would have been avoided. I don’t think they’re monumental.”
Beyond Brand USA’s activities, the State Department is spending millions of dollars to make the visa process easier for foreign tourists, especially in China and Brazil, where demand is growing fastest. It has added two consulates in Brazil and one in China, and several more are planned. Others are being renovated and expanded, and the department has added more staff to process visas.
Edward J. Ramotowski, the State Department official in charge of visa services, said improving services in Brazil and China was the best way to get “bang for our buck.”
U.S. officials said that in 2011, the number of Brazilian tourists increased 26 percent, to 1.5 million, and that they spent and estimated $8.5 billion. The number of Chinese tourists increased 36 percent, to nearly 1.1 million, and they spent an estimated $7.7 billion. The average tourist from Brazil or China spends more per visit than tourists from any other nation, industry officials said.
A visa process that often took just days before 9/11 took weeks or months after the attacks when Congress mandated that almost all foreigners applying for visas be interviewed personally by U.S. consular officials abroad.
Average waiting times have now been cut from almost five months to less than a week in Brazil and from 72 days to less than three weeks in China, Ramotowski said.
He said the State Department has even consulted with Disney about how to improve layouts and foot traffic in high-volume consulates.
Christopher J. Nassetta, chief executive of Hilton Worldwide, said the efforts have had a direct economic benefit for the United States.
“Since more staff was deployed to the U.S. consulates in China to lessen wait times for travel visas, our U.S. hotels saw a 60 percent increase in Chinese guests in the 12 months following July 2011,” Nassetta said. “It’s estimated a Chinese traveler spends $7,000 on average during a visit to the U.S., so that’s a very real impact.”
Freeman said that Americans “need to embrace the power of travel.”
“It’s free money,” he said. “The visitors come to us, leave their money and go home.”