Florida tourism gets jolt from Obama

Published Jan. 19, 2012

Florida is accustomed to seeing plenty of visitors in January, especially in an election year. But the visit Thursday by President Barack Obama could mark a real boost for the state's economy. The president unveiled a new strategy to attract international tourists, which could bring more cash-flush foreigners to Florida. The plan also dovetails perfectly with the push across the region to expand the global appeal of Tampa Bay.

Obama rolled out the initiative on a cloudless day at Walt Disney World near Orlando, the world's top tourist destination. The plan calls for expanding the federal government's ability to process visa applications from two key markets, China and Brazil, and, in some cases, fast-tracking their approvals. The Commerce and Interior departments will lead a new, public-private effort to draw both domestic and international visitors to U.S. destinations, in particular the national parks. And the United States would take another step toward loosening some of the travel barriers instituted after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

These are sensible measures that should promote America's image overseas while boosting its economy at home. According to the Commerce Department, the travel industry accounts for 3 percent of the American economy and 7.5 million jobs. Trade from foreign visitors alone is a $134 billion business. The Obama administration was right to target China and Brazil, given their growing middle classes. The plan is also balanced; the new marketing push will benefit cultural and recreational areas alike. And tourist money churns quickly through the economy. In this slow recovery, everything helps.

The initiative is particularly good for Florida and its tourist economy. The strategy will make it easier for foreigners to visit the state's world-class beaches and theme parks. And singling out Brazil would build on already established ties. More than 1 million Brazilians visited Florida in 2010, second in number only to visitors from Britain. Tourists from Brazil spend more than the average foreign visitor, and they are regular visitors to Tampa Bay attractions such as Busch Gardens. Targeting Brazil as a market at the federal level complements the work that Gov. Rick Scott and area airport and business leaders have done to foster new global ties, especially in South America.

This is welcome news for a state famous as a destination — and one whose unemployment rate is still higher than the national average.