ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 19 (UPI) -- President Obama signed an order Thursday to ease red tape for foreign travelers wanting to visit the United States, saying he wanted America to be No. 1.
"I want America to be the top tourist destination in the world," Obama told a crowd at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
The president also got a laugh from the Disney World crowd, saying, "I confess, I am excited to see Mickey [Mouse]. It's always nice to meet a world leader who has bigger ears than me."
Obama's executive order is designed "to improve visa and foreign visitor processing and travel promotion in order to create jobs and spur economic growth in the United States, while continuing to protect our national security," the order said.
The president told the Disney World crowd he wants to take action right away.
"Right now, there are 36 countries around the world whose citizens can visit America without getting a tourist visa," Obama told the crowd at Disney World. "After they go online they get pre-cleared by homeland security, and there's only one thing they have to do and that's book a flight. And that's been a great boost for tourism. Over 60 percent of our visitors don't require a visa, and in most cases that's because of this program.
"Today, I'm directing my administration to see if we can add more countries to [the pre-clearance list]," he added. "We want more folks to have an easier time coming to the United States."
U.S. Department of Commerce figures show international travel resulted in $134 billion in U.S. exports in 2010 and is the nation's largest service export industry, with 7 percent of total exports and 24 percent of service exports.
Obama's order directs federal officials to coordinate "the implementation of regulatory improvements and the evaluation of legislative proposals to enhance and expedite travel to and arrival in the United States by foreign nationals, consistent with national security requirements."
It gives the secretaries of state and homeland security 60 days to come up with an implementation plan.
The order directs officials to "increase non-immigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent over the coming year," and "ensure that 80 percent of non-immigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks of receipt of application, recognizing that resource and security considerations and the need to ensure provision of consular services to U.S. citizens may dictate specific exceptions."
It also directs officials to "increase efforts to expand the Visa Waiver Program and travel by nationals of Visa Waiver Program participants; and expand reciprocal recognition programs for expedited travel, such as the Global Entry program."
A pilot program started in 2007 now made permanent, Global Entry cuts down clearance times at U.S. customs checkpoints for "pre-approved low-risk travelers" arriving in the United States, The Hill reported.
The executive order said the plan "should also identify other appropriate measures that will enhance and expedite travel to and arrival in the United States by foreign nationals, consistent with national security requirements, as well as any potential challenges."
Restoring tourism to 2001 levels -- before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- would create 1.3 million jobs and add $860 billion in economic activity by 2020, the U.S. Travel Association and National Retail Federation said.
The focus on Brazil and China reflected their growing tourist presence. The 1.2 million Brazilians who visited the United States in 2010 represented a 33 percent increase from 2009, U.S. Commerce Department figures cited by USA Today indicate. The growth will likely be more than 25 percent this year.
The 801,738 Chinese who visited in 2010 represented a 53 percent increase from 2009, with the pace forecast to increase 37 percent this year.
The trip to Florida was part of Obama's "We Can't Wait" campaign to show he can take action without support from Republicans in Congress.
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