America needs more tourists

June 1, 2011, 9:00 AM UTC

Tough visa restrictions make many travelers skip the U.S. New rules will help boost tourism and create jobs.

By Bill Marriott Jr., chairman and CEO of Marriott International

FORTUNE — After 50 years in the business, I still enjoy the old-fashioned ritual of cutting the ribbon at our new hotel openings. Not only do they celebrate the legacy of my parents, who started our company during the Great Depression, but I love looking at the eager faces of all the new employees who line up to mark the occasion. This month we opened two J.W. Marriott (MAR) hotels in the job-starved Midwest, which, combined, will employ 1,100 people and generate more than $10 million in state and local taxes.

In the old days we could count on mayors, governors, and even Presidents to attend our grand openings. Today the politicians are more likely to show up at a new car plant or solar panel factory. I don’t begrudge the attention for these manufacturers. We need every job we can get. But I think politicians overlook the true potential of travel and tourism to create prosperity for more Americans and goodwill for our country around the world.

President Obama was recently in Latin America talking about how he wants to double America’s exports over the next five years to create 2 million new jobs. The solution was looking right at him in those cheering crowds. Invite them to America! But first we need to make the process of visiting smoother for them.

The fix is simple but not easy. Thanks to the Travel Promotion Act passed last year, we’ll start promoting “brand America.” But we need to increase the ease with which people obtain visas to visit our country. Since 9/11, visitors from the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) must have an in-person interview at one of our overseas consulates to get a visa. In October 2010 the wait time for an interview and visa at one of our five consulates in China was 48 days; for Britain the wait time for a visa was 12 days, and it was even less for the big European countries. Unlike the U.S., European countries do not require a visa for Brazilian citizens, so no wonder more Brazilians go to Europe. According to the Department of Commerce’s Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, America’s share of international tourism has dropped from 17% in 2000 to 12% in 2010. Roughly 3.7 million Chinese visited Europe in 2010, compared with only 800,000 who came to the U.S. If we could boost international visitation to the U.S. just 10%, we’d create 100,000 jobs, according to the Commerce Department. And for every dollar spent for travel and hotels, there is a multiplier effect of visitors shopping on Fifth Avenue or eating out at great New York City restaurants that also juices the economy.

Why not set a target of five to 10 days for visa processing? That could be accomplished by boosting staffing at visa processing centers and extending the length of visas for low-risk candidates like business travelers and students. Rather than incur the cost of building and securing new consulates, videoconferencing facilities could be used to process visas more swiftly. Expanding the visa waivers to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, which the President mentioned on his visit, would be a step in the right direction. There’s legislation on Capitol Hill to do that. Let’s move!

I can see no other way the President can create jobs and stimulate the economy faster, at little cost, than welcoming people to the U.S. And I invite the President to celebrate the results by joining me for our next hotel grand opening.