Obama orders streamlining of foreign tourist visas

ORLANDO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered the streamlining of applications for foreign tourist visas to the United States, focused on increasingly affluent Chinese and Brazilian visitors, in an effort to boost tourism and create jobs.

Obama announced the modest package of reforms at the Disney World theme park in Florida, a state whose economy is heavily dependent on the tourist industry.

The state, closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, will be a crucial battleground in November, when Obama faces a re-election vote that may hinge on Americans’ perceptions of his handling of the economy.

The American tourism industry and business groups have long advocated an easing of visa restrictions that were tightened in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Standing on “Main Street” in Disney’s Magic Kingdom with Cinderella’s castle in the background, Obama said he was making the visa changes to try to help spur American job growth.

“I want America to be the top tourist destination in the world,” Obama said. “The more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work. It is that simple.”

He joked that the visit to Disney World was one of the rare instances that his daughters, Sasha and Malia, envied him.

U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he speaks in front of Cinderella's Castle at Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Orlando January 19, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

“Maybe, for once, they will actually ask me at dinner how my day went,” Obama said.

The visa changes were the latest measures rolled out by Obama to show voters he is serious about boosting the still-sluggish labor market and will act on his own whenever possible in the face of election-year gridlock in Congress.

Obama said the new steps would help cut through red tape and make it easier for foreign tourists to come to the United States.

The White House estimated that more than 1 million U.S. jobs could be created in the next decade if the country increased its share of the international travel market.

Foreign visitors generated $134 billion in 2010, making it the largest U.S. service export industry, the Commerce Department said. The number of tourists from emerging economies with growing middle classes like China, Brazil and India is projected to grow sharply in coming years.

Among the steps announced on Thursday:

* An order for the government to increase non-immigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent in 2012, ensuring that 80 percent of applicants are interviewed within three weeks and expanding visa waiver programs.

* A pilot program to simplify and speed the visa process for applicants from China and Brazil, including the ability to waive interviews for low-risk applicants.

* Addition of Taiwan to the list of so-called visa-waiver countries.

* Creation of an interagency task force to develop recommendations for expanding international tourism.

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Caren Bohan; Editing by Will Dunham