Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
Since the first day President Barack Obama took office, he’s focused on putting more Americans back to work and restoring economic security for millions of middle-class families. Although there’s more work to be done, we’re heading in the right direction. In the past 31 months, the private sector has created over 5.2 million good-paying jobs for families across the country.
The travel and tourism industry has been a particularly bright spot for our economy. On Tuesday, I was in Las Vegas to meet with leaders from the hospitality industry at McCarran International Airport’s new international terminal. The group’s leadership efforts and state-of-the-art projects such as this new terminal are not only critical to strengthening the economy here in Las Vegas but also to making America the world’s premier travel destination.
Every year, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world visit America. Millions of people come to Las Vegas and stay in your hotels, eat at your restaurants, and enjoy all the sights and sounds you have to offer. International tourists have had an especially big impact. From 2010 to 2011, international visitors to Nevada jumped 15 percent to nearly 2.9 million people.
And the attractions in and around Las Vegas and elsewhere throughout America are helping to make 2012 yet another record year for international travel. Through August, $109.2 billion was spent by international visitors, up more than 8 percent over the same period in 2011, according to recent Commerce Department data. Most importantly, this type of international tourism means American jobs — 1.2 million were supported by these visitors in the second quarter of this year alone.
The fact is, we want more visitors coming here. We want them spending money here. It’s good for our economy, and it will help more businesses grow and hire. That’s why at the beginning of the year, the president took executive action to boost travel and tourism, announcing new initiatives and a strategy to promote America and make it easier for tourists to come and visit. The national strategy is a blueprint for expanding travel to and within the United States, setting the goal of attracting over 100 million international visitors annually by 2021, more than a 50 percent increase over the number expected this year. These international visitors would spend an estimated $250 billion per year, creating jobs and spurring economic growth in communities across the country.
Last month, the Obama administration issued a progress report on efforts to improve visa and foreign visitor processing, which showed a number of accomplishments. Here’s a rundown:
Even more frequent travelers who pass an extensive background check are able to scan their passports and fingerprints and skip long lines at immigration at a growing number of airports. The administration took steps to expand the Visa Waiver Program, allowing visitors to get pre-cleared by the Homeland Security Department so they don’t need a tourist visa. On Oct. 2, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that citizens of Taiwan can now participate in this program.
The administration streamlined and accelerated visa processing for countries with growing middle classes that can afford to visit America, countries such as China and Brazil. The State Department has cut wait times for visa applicants dramatically without sacrificing the administration’s commitment to security. Now, 88 percent of visa applicants worldwide are interviewed within three weeks, exceeding the president’s goal of 80 percent. In China, we’ve seen a 37 percent jump in demand for visas, yet the State Department is still keeping average wait times to about five days. In Brazil, wait times have gone from as high as 140 days to just two. The State Department also is opening new consulates and hiring more adjudicators in these countries to keep up with demand.
And what’s more, specialists in Commerce’s U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service help local tourist destinations and nearby companies understand global markets and attract more travelers to the United States.
What does this all mean? It means more international visitors and more jobs right here at home. The Commerce Department and all of us in the administration are committed to implementing the president’s vision to encourage even more people to visit great American cities such as Las Vegas.
As our economy continues to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, tourism holds the promise of being an even bigger economic engine in communities across the country. By continuing to support this critical industry, we are supporting an economy that’s built to last.
Rebecca Blank is the acting secretary of the U.S. Commerce Department.