KISSIMMEE – International visitors, Mark Miller insists, make up a huge part of Osceola County’s tourism industry – assuming, that is, they can get into this country through the visa program.
“People coming from China and Brazil, those are both great markets for us,” said Miller, the CEO and owner of Arabian Nights Dinner Show on U.S. 192. “They’re very important to us. We need to be able to help our international visitors to get here as easily as they possibly can. We want them to come here and spend money here.”
That’s why Miller was excited when President Obama came to Walt Disney World last week, to announce that his administration felt tourism was going to be an important part of the U.S. economy, and a leading job creator.
President Obama used his appearance at the Central Florida theme park giant on Jan. 20 to sign an executive order and announce new initiatives to increase travel and tourism in the U.S.
The president noted that the U.S. tourism and travel industry represents 2.7 percent of this nation’s Gross Domestic Product, and created 7.5 million jobs in 2010. International travel to the United States, the White House pointed out, helped support 1.2 million jobs alone. If the U.S. increased its share of the international market, the travel and tourism industry has projected, an additional one million American jobs could be created over the next decade.
“Every year, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world come and visit America,” President Obama said at the event. “And the more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work. We need to help businesses all across the country grow and create jobs, compete and win. That’s how we’re going to rebuild an economy where hard work pays off, where responsibility is rewarded, and where anyone can make it if they try.”
The president issued several executive orders last week, aimed at making it easier for international visitors to get into the United States. It calls on the secretaries of Commerce and the Interior to co-lead an interagency task force to develop recommendations for a National Travel & Tourism Strategy that would promote domestic and international travel opportunities, with a particular focus on promoting visits to national parks and cultural and historic sites in the U.S.
The order also calls on the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to increase non-immigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent this year, while ensuring that 80 percent of non-immigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks — a speedy process.
Miller said those executive orders, if carried out, could be significant for Central Florida’s tourism industry.
“Osceola County is one of the top tourist destinations in Florida,” Miller said, adding that visitors from Brazil and China now wait months to get a U.S. visa.
“Some of them may not have gotten a visa for six to nine months,” he said. “If we make it easier for them to come here, they’ll come back.”
Kriss Titus, the director of a new group called the Kissimmee Tourism Education Association – which is working to promote the tourism industry in Osceola County – welcomed the focus on international visitors and the important role they play in the local economy.
“I think it’s great that he made this speech in Central Florida and Disney,” Titus said. “Does that not say this is truly the tourism hub of the world? He could have gone to New York or California, but he chose Central Florida instead. That speaks volumes of him understanding the state of tourism in Florida.”
More importantly, she added, it shows that the president “understands that tourism is viable in the U.S. and that we need to put our attention into an industry that brings billions of dollars into the economy — and that we can’t dismiss tourism. Then he talked about how important the international market is, and that’s great.”
“The international market is huge,” Miller said. “If you put Canada in the mix, then it’s really huge. There are businesses that exist in Central Florida that depend almost exclusively on Brazilian travel. Brazil has been a good market, but it’s really hard for Brazilians to come to the United States.”
Despite that country’s huge size, there are only six towns with offices that provides U.S. visas, Miller noted.
“If you don’t live in one of those six towns in Brazil, you can’t get here,” he said.
He added that requiring tourists from China or Brazil to wait months to get a visa severely limits those who might, on the spur of the moment, decide they want to go on a Central Florida vacation.
“If we eliminated everybody in America who didn’t plan four or five months in advance to come to Orlando, we’d all be in trouble,” Miller said. “If you’re saying ‘I’m sick of the cold in Chicago, let’s go to Orlando, and go with the sunshine,’ you might not be able to come here if you takes you four months of waiting. So I think this is great.”
The U.S. Department of Commerce has reported that international travel resulted in $134 billion in U.S. exports in 2010, and has become this nation’s largest service export industry.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis has estimated that every additional 65 international visitors to the U.S. can generate enough exports to support one additional travel and tourism-related job.
The announcement at Walt Disney World called for a national strategy to make the U.S. the world’s top travel and tourism destination, with a special focus on nations with emerging economies with a growing middle class, including China, Brazil, and India.
Bringing more international visitors to the region’s theme parks, Titus said, also helps introduce those tourists to the other attractions in Central Florida, including the ones in Osceola County.
“I think it’s really important that we’re out there in the domestic, international and leisure market to say ‘Come stay in Disney — or Osceola County,’ ” she said. “What you get in Osceola County is not only that you’re closer to the theme parks, but also all these added attractions we have.”
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