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Gaming Guru

Steve Tetreault

Las Vegas welcomes Obama's tourism push

20 January 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Barack Obama on Thursday unveiled a new strategy to boost foreign tourism in the U.S., telling an audience at Walt Disney World he wanted America to become the world's top travel destination.

"America is open for business. We want to welcome you," Obama declared in his talk in front of the Cinderella Castle in the heart of the Magic Kingdom outside Orlando, Fla.

Obama issued an executive order seeking to boost tourist visa processing in China and Brazil, and to speed application handling for visitors generally. He also took steps to promote national parks and add business executives to a tourism advisory board.

State Department officials have said they were working to reduce wait times and have made headway. According to the department's website, officials at the four consulates in China conduct in-person interviews with visa applicants in eight days or less of a request. In the business center of Shanghai, the wait has dropped to two days from 51 days in May.

Wait times are considerably longer in Brazil . But in Sao Paolo, they have declined to 65 days since May, while Rio de Janeiro is down to 15 days.

The goal is to significantly increase travel and tourism in the United States. White House officials say more than 1 million U.S. jobs could be created over the next decade if the U.S. increases its share of the international travel market.

Obama's move was welcomed by tourism industry leaders in Las Vegas and elsewhere trying to focus the Obama administration's attention on recapturing overseas visitors who have found it easier to travel elsewhere over the past decade.

"Tourism is the number one economic driver in Southern Nevada and one of the leading forces in our national economy so to have a national effort to increase tourism supported by the White House is tremendous" said Rossi Ralenkotter, the president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Officials at Strip giants Caesars Entertainement and MGM Resorts International agreed that faster visa processing should help fill their hotel rooms.

"In some instances, there are business people who want to attend important trade shows but the process has made it quite prohibitive," said MGM spokesman Gordon Absher. "The announcement today is going to help that."

Caesars spokesman Gary Thompson said foreigners already have made a "significant impact" in helping to restart growth after a sharp recession. For example, higher gaming win numbers have been propelled by baccarat, a card game popular among Asians.

"Streamlining the visa process will only be beneficial to Las Vegas," he said.

Kim Wilkins, manager of Exposition Productions, has seen a rise compared to last year in the number of foreign companies requesting quotes for convention exhibit related services. About 20 percent of her business comes from overseas companies, but she expects that to rise as the visa hurdles diminish.

The United States, with 55 million international visitors, trailed France by 17 million in 2010, according to the World Tourism Organization. But travelers spent more in the U.S., $103 billion, than anywhere else.

Members of Congress from Nevada applauded the president's initiative. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called it "a shot in the arm for Nevada's largest industry."

But Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said Obama could have done better. Heck said he still will seek hearings and votes on a bill he introduced in September that sets more aggressive goals to bring in tourists.

"Executive orders can be changed anytime," Heck said. "If (Obama) was paying more attention we could have been working on this six months ago."

Obama's executive order sets goals to boost nonimmigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent this year, and 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.

He also appointed a new group of executives to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board and directed an interagency task force to develop recommendations for a National Travel and Tourism Strategy, including promoting national parks and other sites.

Obama directed the Homeland Security and State departments to ensure that 80 percent of visa applicants are interviewed within 21 days. Long waits discourage prospective visitors, industry officials complain.

Heck's legislation goes further, requiring the State Department to interview every potential U.S. visitor within 12 days of receiving a visa application. He also calls for a two-year test run of videoconferencing, so applicants do not have to travel to U.S. consulates.

"I think we need to be more aggressive," said Heck, whose bill has been embraced by the travel industry and Las Vegas convention officials .

Janice Jacobs, assistant secretary for consular affairs, said the State Department has looked "extensively" at videoconferencing visa interviews, but it did not meet security requirements.

The travel and tourism industry represents 2.7 percent of gross domestic product and 7.5 million jobs in 2010, White House officials said. But the U.S. share of spending by international travelers fell from 17 percent to 11 percent between 2000 and 2010. They blamed increased competition and changes in global development, as well as security measures imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.