Nevadans applaud President Obama’s tourism initiative


President Barack Obama speaks about tourism and travel on Jan. 19, 2012, at the Walt Disney World resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Tourism industry leaders from across the country applauded President Barack Obama today for signing an executive order and announcing initiatives that should increase travel to the United States.

Against the backdrop of Florida's Disney World, Obama announced his new plan to assist a fledgling renaissance in the country’s tourism sector — one that industry executives believe will also pay dividends in Las Vegas.

Sen. Harry Reid and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Rossi Ralenkotter led local cheers for Obama’s initiatives, which have been sought by industry leaders for months.

Obama’s executive order will put four Cabinet departments in motion. The secretaries of Commerce and the Interior will form an interagency task force to make recommendations on a national travel and tourism strategy in coordination with Brand USA, the new public-private marketing company formed by the Travel Promotions Act Obama signed. The task force will focus on increasing tourism and recreation jobs at national parks, monuments, historic sites, wildlife refuges, cultural and historic sites.

One of the nation’s most visited parks, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, is 25 miles from Las Vegas and Southern Nevada has capitalized on air tours as the metropolitan area nearest Grand Canyon National Park.

The Department of Commerce also has been charged in the executive order with maintaining a website with information and statistics from across the federal government to help the industry and travelers better understand the visa process.

The departments of State and Homeland Security also will be required to increase non-immigrant visa processing in China and Brazil — two key tourism markets Southern Nevada has had its eyes on — by 40 percent in 2012. The departments also will be required to ensure that 80 percent of non-immigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks of receiving an application. Travelers say they’ve had to wait up to three months to get an interview.

State and Homeland Security officials also have been asked to expand the Visa Waiver Program and expand reciprocal trusted travel programs like Global Entry.

The new task force has 90 days to report on increasing tourism and recreational travel, that will then be submitted to the Departments of Commerce and the Interior. The changes to the U.S. visa review process take effect immediately.

Other initiatives launched by Obama today:

• The departments of State and Homeland Security announced a pilot program to simplify and expedite the visa process for certain applicants, including the ability to waive interviews for low-risk travelers.

• A push to draft the final rules to expand and make the Global Entry program permanent. Created in 2008, Global Entry is a program within Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agencies to expedite pre-approved, low-risk travelers when they arrive in the United States. There are 131 Global Entry kiosks at 20 airports in the United States, including units that have been at McCarran International Airport for two years. The program currently has 246,000 members.

• Commerce Secretary John Bryson has appointed 32 industry CEOs to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board to advise him on visa policy, the international travel entry experience, aviation and energy security and crisis communications. The LVCVA’s Ralenkotter was reappointed to the board and is its immediate past chairman.

• Taiwan has been nominated for visa-waiver status. About 60 percent of international tourists don’t need a U.S. visa, thanks to the Visa Waiver Program. Taiwan’s efforts to improve law enforcement and document security standards to meet program requirements were cited in the nomination.

Critics were quick to call the announcement in Orlando a political maneuver. The Florida primary election is Jan. 31 and some critics said they felt Obama was attempting to steal the spotlight with a popular announcement in a state that depends as much on tourism as Nevada.

But most from Nevada cheered the announcement.

Reid called it a “shot in the arm” and an “incredibly important initiative for Nevada.”

“As our economy continues to recover, the president’s plan to boost tourism will create thousands of new jobs in Nevada’s leading industry,” Reid said in a statement this morning. “Increasing foreign travel will create jobs throughout Nevada and our nation because international visitors spend more, on average, than their domestic counterparts.”

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said a new job is created with every 65 new visitors to the United States. But in Las Vegas, that figure is closer to one new job for every 100 visitors, according to Ralenkotter.

“We’ve added more than 15,000 jobs in tourism in Vegas since 2009 because our numbers are increasing,” Ralenkotter said in a phone interview with the Sun.

Ralenkotter applauded the president’s announcement as “recognition of [tourism] being a key economic driver for the nation” and an important next step to get more international visitors visiting Las Vegas – important because “they stay longer, and they have a higher spend per person.”

“The announcement by the president, from the standpoint of all of us in the travel and tourism industry provides tremendous support ... and has direct implications for Nevada as well as Las Vegas as a destination,” he said. “In some countries, people have had to wait for 75 to 125 days for a visa ... it’s been a deterrent for people.”

He said the industry supports 265,000 jobs in Southern Nevada and generates an economic impact of $37 billion. The LVCVA is hoping the Obama effort will help Las Vegas in its goal of increasing international visitation from 18 percent to 30 percent of the visitor volume in the next decade.

“These steps forward are positive for Las Vegas’ core tourism industry and have the potential to positively impact our overall economy by making it easier for international travelers to come to Las Vegas to do business, attend conventions and experience our unique city,” said Kristin McMillan, the president and CEO of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and a member of the LVCVA’s board of directors.

“These initiatives are particularly important as we focus on diversification of our economy to successfully compete in a global marketplace,” McMillan said.

The executive order is part of the president’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, in which the president has been taking steps by executive order to make changes where Congress can’t, or won’t, move on bills that the administration considers important to the economy.

The president’s authority has been used to roll out changes to government programs on housing, employment, drug prices and the environment, to get around congressional gridlock.

Tourism and travel is different, however. There, Congress did act, in 2010, approving a Reid-headlined Travel Promotion Act that set up, among other things, the Brand USA public-private partnership to help promote U.S. travel abroad.

“Just as we do a better job of marketing our tourist destinations, we’ve also got to make it easier for tourists to make the visit,” Obama said in Florida, listing the Hoover Dam among a short roster of U.S. landmarks that attract visitors from overseas. “There’s a good reason why it’s not easy for anybody to get a visa to come to America; obviously, our national security is a top priority...but we also want to get more international tourists coming to America. And there’s no reason why we can’t do both.”

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