Fast track for tourism

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2012 - 9:36 PM

Two Minnesota executives will help figure out how to bring more foreign travelers to the U.S.

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President Obama spoke about tourism at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., near Orlando, on Thursday. Obama announced several initiatives intended to encourage more foreign tourists to visit the U.S.

Photo: Stephen Crowley, New York Times

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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration on Thursday named a pair of Minnesota executives to a national tourism panel that aims to increase foreign visitors to the U.S. by streamlining the visa approval process.

Maureen Bausch, executive vice president of business development at the Mall of America, and Hubert Joly, chief executive of Carlson Companies, joined the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. They are among 32 executives from across the country who will spend the next two years advising the secretary of commerce on travel and tourism policies that could make it easier to visit the U.S.

The number of foreign visits to the U.S. has dropped dramatically over the past decade, costing the nation more than $606 billion in economic activity over the past decade, according to the U.S. Travel Association. The country's market share of international travelers shrank from 17 percent to 11 percent from 2000 to 2010, partly because of heightened security measures put in place after 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Obama issued an executive order that directs the government to increase visa processing by 40 percent in China and Brazil within two months. Within the same time frame, the president instructed the government to interview 80 percent of all visa applicants from foreign countries within three weeks of the time they file for permission to travel to the U.S.

"Every year, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world come and visit America," Obama said. "And the more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work."

The process to obtain travel visas to the U.S. has become mired in red tape and delayed by lack of State Department resources, travel and tourism industry officials say. In China, for example, would-be tourists to the U.S. can wait months and endure multiple interviews to get paperwork that lets them travel to America.

"People want to come here," Obama told an audience at Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, southwest of Orlando, Fla. "And China and Brazil are the two countries which have some of the biggest backlogs. And these are two of the countries with some of the fastest-growing middle classes that want to visit and have disposable income."

The president also moved to expand visa waiver programs and reciprocal agreements with countries which allow people to enter without visas.

"Our goal this year was to increase international tourism by 2 percent," Bausch said.

Among the 42 million visitors to the Mall of America, nearly 3 million are foreign travelers. The No. 1 complaint from the mall's foreign guests is the time it takes to get a visa, Bausch said, noting that the Mall has seen a significant increase in Chinese visitors over the last two years.

"We used to only see Chinese men," said Bausch. "Then, we saw Chinese business women. Now, we're starting to see school groups."

The White House also announced the inclusion of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in a Global Entry program, which is designed to speed up passage of preapproved, low-risk foreign travelers through airport security once they arrive in this country.

The program began in 2008 at 20 airports. Since then, the government says, more than a million international travelers have been able to pass through kiosks rather than stand in long lines to have their papers examined by security personnel. With the addition of airports in the Twin Cities, Denver, Charlotte and Phoenix, the government believes it will have extended access to Global Entry to 97 percent of international travelers.

Obama's initiatives incorporate some parts of a bill introduced several months ago that was cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota. The proposal would allow travelers to renew visas for up to three years after their initial one-year visas expire. That is part of the administration's proposal.

Klobuchar's tourism bill also includes financial incentives for improved visa processing. The process is now so encumbered, according to Klobuchar's staff, that a Brazilian may wait 150 days to receive a visa to visit the U.S. The same person could get a visa to travel to England in just 12 days.

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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