Florida tourism leaders cheer Obama's expected easing of travel restrictions

Published Jan. 19, 2012

Florida tourism leaders Wednesday cheered news that President Barack Obama plans to visit Walt Disney World to announce the easing of travel restrictions to boost international tourism.

It's something they have been pushing for a couple of years, said Maryann Ferenc, co-owner of Mise en Place restaurant in Tampa and a member of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board.

"The potential to help the American economy is huge, and it's immediate because the money is spent very quickly," Ferenc said as she drove to Tallahassee for an annual gathering of tourism leaders before heading to Orlando for the president's announcement today.

"It's my hope that President Obama will use the opportunity to advocate for tourism," said Mark Brisson, director of marketing for Fun Spot Attractions in Orlando. "I hope he doesn't use it as an opportunity to campaign for his re-election, but an opportunity to focus on the industry he's honoring."

Talk of Obama's visit was in the air during a Tourism Day luncheon in Tallahassee, said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

"There was a definite buzz,'' Downing said.

While details were few, the president was expected to announce the easing of travel restrictions for certain countries considered rich targets for Florida tourism, particularly Brazil.

"Brazil has been for a while sort of the golden ring of tourism,'' said Downing.

That's because Brazilians enjoy a strong economy, love to travel and have money to spend. And they like Florida.

In 2010, 1.07 million Brazilians visited the state, trailing the United Kingdom by just 232,000 and, more importantly, spending $1.4 billion in Florida.

"South America is certainly a booming market for us and anything that can make it easier for travelers, especially from South America, to visit the Tampa Bay area we certainly are in favor of," said Travis Claytor of Tampa Bay & Company, Tampa's tourism agency.

Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano has made nonstop service between Tampa and Sao Paulo, Brazil, a high priority. No airlines fly nonstop from Tampa to anywhere in Latin America, except a weekly flight to Cancun, Mexico.

The U.S. Travel Association has pushed to add Brazil to a list of 36 countries whose citizens can travel to the United States without a visa. The United States has only four consular offices in Brazil, and getting a visa can take 130 days and cost thousands of dollars.

Ferenc, the past chairwoman of Tampa Bay & Company, said the rest of the world has seen a 40 percent jump in international travel while travel to the United States has been in decline.

Besides easing visa restrictions, any changes in post-9/11 security that would ease travel for international visitors would be welcome, she said.

Times staff writer Brittany Davis contributed to this report. Tom Scherberger can be reached at