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Obama making it easier for foreign tourists to visit U.S.

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    President Barack Obama greeted people on the tarmac after arriving at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, N.Y.,Thursday.

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. >> Promoting travel to the U.S. as a job creator, President Barack Obama on Thursday instructed federal agencies Thursday to make it easier for people from other countries to visit the 50 states and spend money at their hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions and other businesses.

Obama signed a presidential memorandum Obama signed a presidential memorandum giving his homeland security and commerce secretaries four months to come up with a plan to streamline the entry process and reduce wait times. And he pitched the economic benefits of tourism at Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the first sitting president to visit the museum in its nearly 75-year history.

Obama acted two years ago to speed the processing of tourist visas for visitors from China and Brazil, steps that have dramatically reduced the length of time people from those populous countries must wait for approval to travel to the U.S., said administration officials who previewed the president’s trip for reporters.

On Thursday, Obama tackled the flip side of the problem: long waits for processing at U.S. airports and other ports of entry once tourists arrive.

In his presidential memorandum, he also asked the Homeland Security and Commerce departments to work with the 15 largest U.S. airports, following steps taken by Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago international airports to cut wait times.

“Believe it or not, tourism is an export,” Obama said last week. “And if we make it easier for more foreign visitors to visit and spend money at America’s attractions and unparalleled national parks, that helps local businesses and grows the economy for everyone.”

Cooperstown is a small town but the museum attracts nearly 300,000 visitors a year, creating and sustaining jobs there and supporting the local economy.

Before departing for upstate New York, Obama met with 20 travel and tourism industry CEOs and senior executives, including Arne Sorenson of Marriott International, Mark Hoplamazian of Hyatt Hotels and Roger Dow of the U.S. Travel Association.

A White House report released Thursday said the number of international visitors has grown from 55 million in 2009 to a record 70 million in 2013, a level of growth that has supported about 175,000 jobs over the past five years. Two years ago, Obama set a goal of welcoming 100 million international visitors a year by the end of 2021.

Still, as the number of travelers worldwide increases sharply, the U.S. share of that market has slipped. Last year, 13 percent of global travelers visited the United States, compared with 17 percent in 2000.

“These people spend $4,500 a trip, so it’s a monster opportunity ahead of us,” Dow, of the Travel Association, said after the White House meeting.

He said other countries have had major marketing programs to draw tourists. “We’ve had zero,” he said. “We’re now getting back in the game.”

The White House report said the State Department issued 9.2 million visas last year, up 42 percent since 2010.

Visa waiting periods in Brazil and China have dropped from as much as 100 days to less than five on average, the report said.

From upstate New York, Obama was heading to his Chicago hometown to headline a pair of fundraisers benefiting Democratic Senate candidates.


Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this article.

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