By Vicki Needham - 01/19/12 12:45 AM EST
The White House provided few details on the president's trip but visa reform has been on the Obama administration's radar and many proponents — the National Retail Federation and U.S. Travel Association — have called changes to cut down on long visa wait times as "low-hanging fruit" that would bolster the economic recovery.
Also, Obama could discuss the funding that Congress included in the omnibus spending bill for the State Department to test out a secure teleconferencing program that could help reduce costly travel to visa offices in various countries, as well as the Model Ports program, put into place six years ago that is designed to improve the arrivals process for visitors to the United States.
The President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness said in its 2011 year-end report that the group has been working closely with the State Department to accelerate visa processing particularly in fast-growing countries such as China and Brazil, where demand currently outstrips processing capacity.
Due to increased staffing and better use of facilities, the State Department has increased visa processing those countries by more than 30 percent over the past year and is working to achieve an increase of at least an additional 40 percent in 2012, the report said.
Blain Rethmeier, senior vice president of public affairs at U.S. Travel Association, said the U.S. is losing tourists and probably billions of dollars because wait times discourage some who decide to travel elsewhere.
Rethmeier calls the annoucement at Disney "a turning point for our industry to have the president on a national stage in one of the most sought out desintations in the world."
He called the announcement an emotional boost for an issue that isn't often discussed but has wide-ranging bipartisan support.
Supporters are pressing for legislation that would shorten wait time to between 12 and 30 days from waits as long as 120 days in China and 145 days in Brazil.
The USTA and NRF say a larger effort to cut wait times could mean 1.3 million jobs and $859 billion in additional economic activity by 2020 with virtually no cost to taxpayers.
"Clearly, travel is the unsung hero of the current export recovery that has been one of the few bright spots in this fledgling recovery," David Huether, senior vice president of economics and research at the U.S. Travel Association, said recently.
"Increasing foreign visitors to the U.S. is one of the most efficient, fast-acting and least costly job programs that the government could promote," he said.
The benefits are far-ranging supporters say with the average tourist traveling to the United States spending $4,000 while a tourist from China spends $6,200, one from Brazil $5,000 and a visitor from India spends $6,100.
Spending by Chinese visitors is expected to grow 232 percent to $16.6 billion by 2016, making Chinese tourists the seventh largest tourist market for the U.S.
Tourism is a $700 billion industry providing 7.4 million American jobs, according to the U.S. Chamber.
Meanwhile, State Department officials have said they are making changes in areas that don't require congressional approval.
In November, the State Department announced a plan to hire 100 more officers in China and Brazil — 50 in each country — in the coming year while vowing to double the number of visas over two years.
The plan will allow U.S. officials to expand the number of visas to more than 2.2 million in China by 2013 — up from 1 million in fiscal year 2011 or a 34 percent increase over last year.
In addition, to keep wait times down, the State Department added temporary staff and extended hours during the past three summers in Beijing and Shanghai. They also are looking to further expand interview operations in several large Chinese cities.