LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – President Obama planted his political flag in Florida on Thursday ahead of the state's Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary, promising a fresh boost to the economy by making it easier for foreign tourists to travel to the U.S.
Obama sought his piece of Florida's political spotlight with a high-profile appearance at Walt Disney World, where he announced initiatives aimed at making it easier for citizens of China and Brazil to visit the United States.
"America is open for business," Obama declared against the backdrop of Disney's Cinderella castle and picture-perfect blue skies. "We want to welcome you."
From Florida, Obama headed 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. Obama raised more than $220 million for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee through the end of 2011.
Beyond offering an opportunity to talk about the economy, Obama's trip to Florida marked an attempt by the White House and his campaign to steal attention from Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination. In recent weeks 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 was greeted in the Orlando area by ads from GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney blaming the president for the state's struggling economy. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, could take a major step toward securing the Republican nomination with a win in Florida's Jan. 31 primary contest.
"I have a simple question for you: Where are the jobs?" Romney wrote in an open letter to the president on Thursday running as an ad in the Tampa Bay Times. In a conference call with reporters, Romney said Obama was "speaking from Fantasyland."
While Obama carried Florida in 2008, the state is a top target for Republicans in the November elections. 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.
Tourism is a key component to the economy in Florida, which has been battered by 10 percent unemployment and rampant home foreclosures.
The White House said 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 tourism initiative is part of an executive order Obama signed. Its goal is 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.
The White House says the travel and tourism industry represented 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.
The approach was welcomed by Brazilian tourists Lilian Lara and Lindbergh Souza, who shopped along the resort's streets hours before the president's speech. Souza said the visa process was expensive, at $500, and time-consuming for Brazilians who don't live close to consuls in Rio de Janiero and Sao Paulo. "The whole process took me six months," Souza said.