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Outside editorial: Welcome boost for tourism

Posted: January 26, 2012 - 1:09am

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald:

It’s no coincidence that President Barack Obama’s decision to unveil a plan to promote tourism and, in particular, make it easier for Brazilians to travel to the United States comes at the beginning of an election year, and just before next week’s Republican primary.

This is a welcome decision that will hike tourism revenues across this state, especially South Florida, where Brazilians spent more than $1.5 billion in 2010 alone. And it also boosts Obama’s image in a swing state that will be crucial to his re-election campaign, allowing him to steal the spotlight just as Republican presidential contenders flood into the state prior to the Jan. 31 primary.

But it shouldn’t have taken so much time and so much prodding and pushing by Democratic and Republican members of Florida’s congressional delegation, who have been after Obama for years to take this kind of action. “What he is announcing today should have been done two or three years ago,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., complained.

It’s also half a loaf. Brazilians currently have to wait more than three months to get a face-to-face interview with U.S. officials to get a non-resident visa. The administration’s initiative aims to drop the waiting period to 21 days and calls for boosting visa-issuance capacity by 40 percent. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose department issues visas, said consular officers will now be able to waive interview requirements on a case-by-case basis for many tourists and business travelers who have already spent billions of dollars in the United States.

Hooray. But the ultimate goal should be to allow Brazil to get on the list of “visa waiver” countries whose citizens can apply for a U.S. visitor visa online. Obama said he wants to expand that 36-nation list. Brazil should be one of the first to be added.

South Florida tourism leaders should continue to fight to make that happen. It would also help to speed things along in a big country like Brazil if video interviews were allowed, instead of requiring face-to-face meetings with consular officials. Obama’s initiative appears to open the door to using new technologies, but State Department officials told reporters video-conferencing was not being contemplated.

Tourism leaders and companies like American Airlines were delighted with Obama’s action, especially locally, where in 2010 Brazilians became the first billion-dollar tourist market for Miami.

In 2010 the number of Brazilian visitors to South Florida reached about 850,000, increasing by 15 percent above that in the first nine months of last year. Ultimately, South Florida must diversify its economy and expand into information technology, medical research and other high-income areas of employment.

But as long as this region is blessed with great weather, beautiful beaches and other natural advantages, it will continue to rely on tourist spending to boost the economy. Making it easier for visitors to get here makes sense.

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