Obama, in Florida, unveils plans to boost tourism

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

President Barack Obama greets guests after speaking at the Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

John Raoux, Associated Press

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Targeting prize electoral territory, President Barack Obama called Thursday for America to become the world's top travel destination, making an economic pitch to Florida voters from the Magic Kingdom ahead of an upcoming Republican presidential primary.

"America is open for business," Obama declared in his talk in front of the sun-splashed Cinderella Castle in the heart of Disney World. "We want to welcome you," he said.

Obama issued an executive order seeking to boost tourist visa processing in China and Brazil and took additional steps including promoting national parks and adding business executives to a tourism advisory board.

The goal is to significantly increase travel and tourism in the United States. The White House said that 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.

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

Trumpeting America's attractions, Obama rattled off a list of can't-miss tourist sites from Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks to the Golden Gate Bridge and the skyline of his native Chicago.

"We've got the best product to sell. I mean, look at where we are. We've got the most entertaining destinations in the world. This is the land of extraordinary natural wonders," he said.

Beyond the economic case, Obama's trip to the tourist mecca was the latest bid by the White House and his campaign to steal a share of the spotlight from Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination. Obama held a live video conference with Iowa voters during the Republican caucus, Vice President Joe Biden held a similar event with voters in New Hampshire on the night of the state's first-in-the-nation primary, and next week Obama will travel to Nevada, which follows Florida on the primary calendar.

Obama's high-profile trip to Florida could help him counter attacks on his record lobbed by Republican presidential candidates during stops across the state, where tough television ads are already airing. And it allows Obama to lay the groundwork for the general election campaign in Florida, a key political battleground he carried in 2008.

The state holds 29 electoral votes, making it a top target for both Obama and his Republican rivals. Florida twice backed Republican George W. Bush, providing the decisive electoral votes in the cliffhanger 2000 election that was decided after a 36-day recount.

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney greeted Obama with an open letter to the president running as an ad in Thursday's editions of the Tampa Bay Times. "Welcome to Florida," Romney says in the ad. "I have a simple question for you: Where are the jobs?"

"Perhaps there's some poetic justice in the president speaking from Fantasyland," Romney added in a conference call with reporters. "Because, I'm afraid, he's been speaking from Fantasyland for some time now."

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed the president in a near-statistical tie with Romney in Florida in a head-to-head matchup.

Tourism is a key component of the economy in Florida, which is burdened by 10 percent unemployment and rampant home foreclosures. Thursday's tourism and travel announcement was part of the president's "We Can't Wait" initiative aimed at promoting executive actions Obama can take without congressional approval.

The White House said the travel and tourism industry represent 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.

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