President Barack Obama promised Florida’s tourism industry Thursday that he intends to open the door wider to international tourists and was greeted with cheers in a state where increased foreign visitors are seen as one of the best hopes for future jobs.
Even Obama critic U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, welcomed the presidential directives, if only with a “what took him so long?” spin.
“I’m here because I want more tourists here tomorrow,” Obama declared in a 13-minute speech in front of Cinderella Castle at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. “I want America to be the top tourist destination in the world.”
“We’ve got the best product to sell. I mean, look at where we are,” Obama said.
As expected, the president announced he intends to expand the U.S. State Department’s Global Entry Program for trusted international visitors; expand and accelerate visa-application processing — by at least 40 percent — for such countries as Brazil and China; and attempt to add more countries to the Visa Waiver Program, which allows tourists from 36 nations to skip the visa process.
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He issued an executive order earlier Thursday setting up many of those procedures and establishing a multiagency committee to study ways to expand international tourism.
Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said he thinks the strategy can have real impact on tourism in Central Florida and in the United States in general, and said the committee offers longer-term prospects.
“As a first step in this process of really trying to simplify the visa process, this is great,” he said.
Bill Talbert, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he was nearly speechless after hearing Obama’s proposals. In 2010, Brazilians became the first billion-dollar tourist market for Miami, despite sometimes having to wait months for visas.
“It’s fantastic. It’s everything we had hoped for,” he said. “It’s the first time we’ve heard the president talk about the value of travel and tourism publicly.”
Mica spoke in advance of Obama’s speech, joining a news-conference call held by current Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney. Mica said the tourism initiative is something he and other members of the Florida congressional delegation have been seeking for years.
“What he is announcing today should have been done two or three years ago,” Mica said.
Obama expressed visions of tourists coming not just to Orlando, but to places ranging from the Everglades to Grand Canyon and Yosemite national parks, to the Empire State building and to his hometown, Chicago.
“People want to come here,” he said. “So this is what it’s all about: telling the world that America is open for business.”
“The more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work. It’s that simple,” he added.
Obama’s speech drew enthusiastic applause from the 300 or so invited guests and top Disney executives who crowded into a seating area in the middle of Main Street, U.S.A. and filled the sidewalks near the Casey’s Corner hot-dog restaurant.
Tourists weren’t as lucky. Main Street, the iconic pathway to Cinderella Castle, was closed much of the day to the public. Guests were routed directly to Tomorrowland through a backstage area dressed up with floats and flags, avoiding the site of Obama’s speech.
Joan Burke, who was visiting the Magic Kingdom, said she wished she had been able to see the speech. But the event didn’t ruin her day.
“We made do,” she said. “We got on a lot of rides because there weren’t a lot of people here today.”
The speech was simulcast at the Hall of Presidents in Liberty Square for Disney visitors and in backstage areas so Disney cast members could watch.
Obama was introduced by Ruben Perez, a son of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants who owns ZaZa Café, a restaurant at Orlando International Airport, and YaYa’s Cuban Cafe and Bakery near Semoran Boulevard.
Perez, who later described himself as a political independent who frequently votes Republican, gave Obama an enthusiastic introduction.
“Needless to say, tourism is a big factor in our business. Tourism is a big factor for thousands of working families in Orlando, in the service industry. Anything that increases foot traffic is great for business,” Perez said.
The brief visit, Obama’s first to Orlando since October, is a nod to the importance of the region to Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, in the upcoming presidential election. Obama carried the Sunshine State in 2008, but his approval ratings today are hovering in the mid-40s in most polls.
Obama is the fourth sitting president to visit a Walt Disney World park, the first since George H.W. Bush in 1991. He is the first to visit the Magic Kingdom since Jimmy Carter in 1978.
Romney, speaking from South Carolina, said that Obama “has chosen Fantasyland to give this address,” adding, “He has been speaking from fantasyland for some time now.”