ORLANDO, Florida — US President Barack Obama went to Disney World on Thursday touting a new jobs-from-tourism plan, but a top Republican rival mocked his trip as new evidence he lived in a political “Fantasyland.”
Obama unveiled a proposal to boost jobs in the crucial electoral swing state of Florida and elsewhere by easing visa restrictions for new armies of middle class tourists from booming developing nations like China, India and Brazil.
“More money spent by more tourists means businesses can hire more workers,” Obama said on a warm sunny day, speaking against the famed backdrop of Cinderella Castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park.
“We’ve got the most entertaining destinations in the world…. This is the land of extraordinary natural wonders… this is the land where we do big things,” Obama said, promising to make it easier for trusted travelers to enter the United States despite formidable border security measures.
“I want America to be the top tourist destination in the world.”
Eyeing growing tourist dollars in emerging nations like China and Brazil, Obama set a target of increasing non-immigrant visa capacity in those two states by 40 percent in 2012.
Under the plan, 80 percent of such applicants could get interviews with visa officers within three weeks of submitting paperwork, and some low-risk applicants could see interview requirements waived completely.
Obama also directed his administration to expand a program that allows trusted low-risk frequent travelers who agree to undergo background checks to bypass long lines at US immigration in crowded airports.
The US tourism and travel industry represents 2.7 percent of gross domestic product and accounted for 7.5 million jobs in 2010, with visitors from overseas responsible for the creation of 1.2 million jobs.
Obama’s visit to Florida came as he cranks up the pace of his 2012 reelection bid, in the knowledge that a victory in the Sunshine State in November could help send him back to the White House for four more years.
Disney World, in Orlando, sits near the I-4 coast-to-coast highway in central Florida which bisects the most contested swing-territory in the state.
Republicans will hold their presidential nominating convention in August in Tampa, at the west end of the crucial corridor.
Obama’s jobs speech clearly was also targeted at disappointment with his jobs-creating record in the key state, where unemployment stands at 10 percent and will be a key issue in the presidential election.
Mitt Romney, Obama’s most likely Republican opponent in November, could not resist a swipe at the president, on the Disney theme.
“Perhaps there’s some poetic justice in the president speaking from Fantasyland because, I’m afraid, he’s been speaking from Fantasyland for some time now,” Romney said.
Romney charged Obama was “out of touch with reality” as he tried to defend his jobs record with unemployment above 8.0 percent for 35 straight months.
Experts in the travel and tourism industries say more than one million more US jobs could be created over the next decade if the government takes appropriate measures.
The number of travelers from emerging economies with growing middle classes was expected to grow by 135 percent in China, 274 percent in Brazil and 50 percent in India between 2010 and 2016, according to the White House, which said nationals from these three countries contributed approximately $15 billion and thousands of jobs to the US economy in 2010.
David Scowsill, president of the World Travel and Tourism Council, called Obama’s announcement a “major step forward.”
Roger Dow, president and chief executive of the US Travel Association, said Obama’s “timing could not be better.”
“Travel is an essential industry for our nation and a bipartisan issue that can unite our country and rally us forward,” he said.