International visits grow by 8.1 percent from 2010
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY —Thanks in part to a favorable exchange rate, international tourist visits to the U.S. surged in 2011, contributing to an 8.1 percent increase in domestic and international tourism spending.
A big factor was an influx of international travelers — up 2.5 million to a total of 62 million for the year, according to figures released by the U.S. Commerce Department this week. The department estimates that the growth in tourism supports an additional 103,000 jobs.
Altogether, visitors from overseas spent an all-time record $153 billion on U.S. travel and tourism-related goods and services in 2011, making travel and tourism the country’s number-one service export. The figures come on the heels of President Obama’s announcement of new initiatives to significantly increase travel and tourism in the U.S.
The U.S. State Department has added 100 workers and expanded hours to process tourist visa applications in China and Brazil, both seen as key markets for the U.S. tourism market. A new consular facility in Beijing should increase visa interview capacity by 50 percent, and consular officers in Brazil can now waive interviews for applicants younger than 15 and older than 66.
“Every year, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world visit America, and the more visitors we have, the more Americans we get back to work. This Administration will not let up on our efforts to support the tourism industry and make America more welcoming to visitors from all over the world,” said Commerce Secretary John Bryson, vowing to continue efforts to boost tourism.
“Today’s data confirms that international tourism is an enormous economic engine in this country,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a prepared release.
“Our national parks, public lands and water play a critical role in President Obama’s tourism strategy as we work to identify new ways to raise the profile of our country’s most iconic destinations. As more and more international visitors choose the United States for their next vacation, local economies-hotels, restaurants, gas stations-will continue to benefit.”
A task force formed as part of the Obama administration’s tourism push is particularly focused on strategies for increasing tourism and recreation jobs by promoting visits to national parks, wild refuges, cultural and historic sites, monuments, and other public lands and water that can attract travelers from around the country and the globe.
Global long-haul travel expected to grow by 40 percent over the coming decade, and U.S. tourism experts hope to capture 17 percent of the total long-haul global travel market.
Reaching that goal by 2015 and sustaining that level for five years would result in 98 million additional visitors to the U.S. That, in turn, would generate $390 million in direct travel experts and 1.3 million jobs, according to figures from the U.S. Travel Association.
The USTA recently gave its input on the national tourism strategy, calling on the state department to make online consular service more user-friendly, with visa applications translated into native languages, and more customer service training for consular officers. A long-term strategic plan for opening new visa offices in high-growth markets is also important to sustain gains in tourism growth, the organization said. Read the USTA’s full comments here.
Other recommendations include cutting application for travelers willing to apply during off-peak times, and, conversely, to offer expedited visas at a premium cost, as well as allowing existing visa-holders to renew their documents in the U.S.
Perhaps the biggest single step the government could take is expanding the visa waiver program, which enables foreigners to visit the U.S. without a formal visa.
About 17 million travelers from countries without visa requirements visit the U.S. annually — 65 percent of all visitors in 2010, spending more than $61 billion, supporting 433,000 jobs and generating $9 billion in government tax revenues.
The USTA also wants the state department to begin formal bilateral visa waiver negotiations countries including Brazil, Poland, Chile, Argentina and Croatia.
Bipartisan legislation pending in the House and Senate could make it easier for the state department to do just that, while still maintaining security at the border.
Besides easing legal requirements, the U.S. could be more welcoming to travelers by increasing staffing and cutting wait times for entry at airports. The USTA also wants more transparency, with mandated reporting to Congress in airport wait times.