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.
Obama's executive order aims to: boost non-immigrant visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent this year; expand a Visa Waiver Program that allows participating nationals to travel to the U.S. for stays of 90 days or less without a visa; appoint a new group of chief executives to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, and direct an interagency task force to develop recommendations for a National Travel and Tourism Strategy, including promoting national parks and other sites.
That was good news to Brazilian visitors Lilian Lara and Lindbergh Souza, who welcomed the change in visa procedures as they shopped along the resort's streets hours before the president's speech.
"It will make things a whole lot better," said Lara, a 22-year-old student from Sao Paolo, who is working as a summer intern at the theme park resort.
Souza said the visa process was expensive, at $500, and also time consuming, especially for Brazilians who don't live close to consuls in Rio de Janiero and Sao Paulo.
"The whole process took me six months," said Souza, who welcomed the president's efforts to speed up the visa process especially for visitors from Brazil and China.
The White House insisted the president's trip to Florida was not purely political, dismissing suggestions that his itinerary was connected to a slate of upcoming Republican primaries. Obama spokesman Jay Carney said there were few tourist destinations "as iconic as Disney World" and the tourist attractions surrounding Orlando represented a fitting place to talk about the president's initiatives.
From Florida, Obama was to fly to New York City for four glitzy campaign fundraisers, including an event at the famed Apollo Theater featuring performances by Al Green and India.Arie. Tickets to that fundraiser start at $100.
The president also was to attend a $35,800 per ticket fundraiser at the home of director Spike Lee, and two small fundraisers at Daniel, an exclusive Manhattan restaurant. Tickets start at $5,000 for the first restaurant fundraiser and $15,000 for the second.
Associated Press writer Mike Schneider contributed to this report.
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