White House ramping up efforts to boost tourism

"At a time when too many Americans are still looking for work, we need to make it easier for more people to visit this country and keep our economy growing." 

The strategy would also help small businesses prepare for the upcoming travel season.

Officials also said they are looking into adding Vietnam into the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), while also examining Brazil's potential entry. 

Travelers using the VWP increased 8 percent from last year, while arrivals of travelers from China and Brazil have increased by 33 percent and 18 percent, respectively. 

Last year, international spending on U.S. travel hit a record $153 billion, an 8.1 percent increase from 2010. Tourism dropped off throughout the 2000s, mostly because of more stringent security standards put in place following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 

Tourism supported an additional 103,000 jobs last year for a total of 7.6 million, while generating $1.2 trillion from domestic and international travel.

In February, more than 4.2 million international visitors traveled to the United States, a 9 percent increase over the same month a year ago and the 11th straight month of increases in total U.S. visits. 

Foreign visitors spend, on average, $4,200 during their trips here with some countries, like China, spending upward of $6,000 during their stay, according to the U.S. Travel Association. 

The U.S. ranks first in world of dollars spent by visitors but second in the world for number of tourists, behind France, an official said. 

Tourism is expected to increased by 4-5 percent a year for the next five years, with an estimated 65.4 million foreign travelers expected to visit the United States this year, the Commerce Department recently reported. 

To meet the needs in the highest demand areas for visas, the State Department is spending about $90 million this year in China and Brazil.

Travelers are now waiting less than one week for an appointments at U.S. consulates in China and Brazil.

"As we move out of the recession, the wheels of the travel industry have not stopped turning," said Roger Dow, president and chief executive of U.S. Travel.  

"Since the job recovery began, our industry has created more than 250,000 new jobs — nearly 50,000 this year alone — which far outpaces gains in the rest of the economy or by other industries."

A U.S. Travel Association study found that the reduction of visa wait times to 10 days could create 1.3 million jobs and add more than $850 billion to the economy by 2020.

The National Retail Federation has been on the forefront of pressing the White House and Congress for solutions to reduce visa processing.

“Encouraging foreign visitors to the United States is one of the easiest ways to boost our economy,” said Matthew Shay, NRF's president and chief executive. 

"By streamlining our visa application and review process we can increase international travel, tourism and trade, especially among emerging economies and markets like Brazil, China and India, and welcome more shoppers from our shores to our stores," Shay said. 

Commerce Secretary John Bryson and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are leading the task for to increase tourism.

“As our nation’s economy continues to gain strength, tourism, especially international tourism, holds the promise of being an economic engine for the country," Salazar said.