Speaking to a crowd at Walt Disney World Resort on Thursday, President Obama unveiled plans to increase international visitation and make the United States the worldÕs top travel destination. (photo by Walt Disney World Resort)

DOWNTOWN — President Barack Obama is promising a fresh boost to the economy by making it easier for foreign tourists to travel to the U.S., a move welcomed by Santa Monica officials.

“One of the biggest obstacles facing foreign travelers who want to come to … Santa Monica is the difficult visa application process some must undergo in order to get here,” said Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau President/CEO Misti Kerns said. “These inconveniences have hampered the U.S.’ economic growth and global competitiveness by making it difficult, sometimes almost impossible, for growing international markets such as Brazil and India to visit our destination.”

The tourism initiative approved by Obama this week is intended to make the U.S. the world’s top travel destination by boosting non-immigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent this year; expanding a Visa Waiver Program that allows participating nationals to travel to the U.S. for stays of 90 days or less without a visa; appointing a new group of chief executives to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board; and directing an interagency task force to develop recommendations for a National Travel and Tourism Strategy, including promoting national parks and other sites.

“America is open for business,” Obama declared Thursday against the backdrop of Walt Disney World’s Cinderella castle and picture-perfect blue skies. “We want to welcome you.”

The White House says the travel and tourism industry represented 2.7 percent of gross domestic product and 7.5 million jobs in 2010. But the U.S. share of spending by international travelers fell from 17 percent to 11 percent between 2000 and 2010, due to increased competition and changes in global development, as well as security measures imposed after Sept. 11, 2001, according to the White House.

The White House said more than 1 million U.S. jobs could be created over the next decade, according to industry projections, if the U.S. increases its share of the international travel market.

“Tourism is a critical component to the strength of our local economy and quality of life of our residents,” said Santa Monica City Manager, Rod Gould.  “TOT (transient occupancy tax) from our hotels generated close to $34 million to the City of Santa Monica’s general fund in 2010. This enables the city to maintain the excellent service that is its hallmark.”

According to Kerns, $1.2 billion is generated by tourism each year in Santa Monica, with over 10,000 local jobs supported by visitors. Kerns said without tourism dollars, each Santa Monica household would pay an additional $809 annually to retain the same level of services currently provided.

Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau has partnered with the U.S. Travel Association to increase travel to and within the United States. Among U.S. Travel’s objectives for 2012 will be for the U.S. government to pursue concrete actions to increase international travel, business travel, participation in meetings and conventions and leisure travel throughout America. Policies U.S. Travel will champion include expansion of the Visa Waiver Program to Brazil, Argentina and Chile; further improvements to the entry process for international guests; streamlining the security process for trusted travelers; and building an aviation system that encourages greater air travel.

“This is the first time our country has had a national strategy and set goals for the amount of visitors we want to welcome to our country,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO for the U.S. Travel Association. “The timing of the president’s announcement could not be better.”

Obama’s approach was welcomed by Brazilian tourists Lilian Lara and Lindbergh Souza, who shopped along the Disney resort’s streets hours before the president’s speech. Souza said the visa process was expensive, at $500, and time-consuming for Brazilians who don’t live close to consuls in Rio de Janiero and Sao Paulo.

“The whole process took me six months,” Souza said.

In April, Kerns said the visitors bureau will welcome top market buyers to Santa Monica Place and Downtown for “Shop America,” an exclusive reception for those attending Pow Wow, the travel industry’s premier international marketplace and largest generator of inbound U.S. travel.

“This event will feature Santa Monica as a premier California beach destination by providing buyers an opportunity to explore our destination’s shopping along with ocean breezes, sunset views, farmers market fresh cocktails and entertainment.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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