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President Barack Obama at Disney World, unveils plans to boost tourism

ORLANDO — President Barack Obama's visit Thursday to Walt Disney World was as much an appeal to Brazilians and their dollars as it is Florida voters and their jobs. But it was a brief one, highlighted by a speech that lasted just 13 minutes.

Obama's plan is designed to make it easier for international travelers to visit the United States. In Florida and at Disney World, the issue focuses mostly on Brazilian travelers, whose visa applications are backlogged. Florida and Disney World are among the favorite destinations of free-spending Brazilians, who spend an average of $5,000 each per visit.

"We've got the best product to sell. I mean look at where we are," Obama declared, gesturing to Cinderella's Castle behind him.

"We've got the most entertaining destinations in the world. This is the land of extraordinary natural wonders from the Rocky Mountains to the Grand Canyon, to Yellowstone, to Yosemite. This is the land where we do big things, so we have incredible landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Hoover Dam, the Gateway Arch. This is the land of iconic cities.

"I'm here because I want tourists here tomorrow," he concluded. "I want America to be the top tourist destination in the world."

The declaration drew enormous applause from the 300 or so invited guests and top Disney employees who crowded into a seating area in the middle of Main Street U.S.A., and filled the sidewalks in front of the Casey's Corner hot dog restaurant.

"The more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work. It's that simple," he added.

Obama was introduced by Ruben Perez, a son of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants, who owns ZaZa Cafe at Orlando International Airport, plus a couple of other businesses.

"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.

Earlier in the day, Obama issued an executive order setting up procedures to speed the issuance of tourist visas to citizens of Brazil, India and China and establishing a multi-agency committee to study long-term ways to expand international tourism to the United States.

"People want to come here," he said. "So this is what it's all about — telling the world that America is open for business," he added.

Obama assured the crowd that the United States would continue to "protect our borders" even as it fosters a more welcoming environment for tourists.

Obama began his brief speech about 12:40, starting with a recognition of Mickey Mouse. "It's always nice to meet someone who has bigger ears than me," he said.

Later, he said that Disney represents "the quintessentially American spirit." The speech ended at 12:53 p.m.

The speech was simulcast at the Hall of Presidents in Liberty Square for Disney visitors — who were kept away from the speech site — and in backstage areas so that Disney cast members could watch.

The brief visit, Obama's first to Orlando since October when he came here for two fundraisers, is a nod to the importance of the region to the presidential election in Florida, the nation's largest swing state. Obama carried the Sunshine State in 2008, but his approval ratings today are hovering in the mid-40s in most polls.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, speaking from South Carolina, didn't miss a chance to take a shot, ridiculing the trip as another stop in "fantasyland" for the president.

Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who joined Romney on the news conference call Thursday morning, said he welcomed the president's visit and the expected tourism programs but added, "he's a day late and a few projects short." And Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, accused the president — playing off the Main Street U.S.A. location of Obama's speech — of closing down main streets everywhere.

Mica said he welcomed the tourism initiative but said it is something he and other members of the Florida delegation have been seeking for years.

"What he is announcing today should have been done two or three years ago," Mica said.

What will happen

President Obama's moves are designed to make it easier for international travelers to visit the United States. He plans to expand the U.S. State Department's Global Entry Program for trusted international visitors; expand and accelerate visa application processing for such countries as Brazil, India and China; and attempt to add more countries to the Visa Waiver Program that allows foreigners from 36 countries to skip the visa process.

By the numbers

1.07 Million Brazilians who visited Florida in 2010, second only to the United Kingdom in overseas visits.

$1.4 Billion Amount Brazilian visitors spent in Florida in 2010, nearly twice the level of their counterparts from the U.K.

$2.2 Trillion Brazil's GDP in 2010, 8th largest by country in the world.

52 Weekly direct flights from Miami to Brazil (as of July).

0 Direct flights from Tampa

to Brazil.

Source: Visit Florida, CIA World Factbook

President Barack Obama at Disney World, unveils plans to boost tourism 01/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 10:07pm]
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