Pritzker: America is open for business

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Penny Pritzker at the podium at the WTTC Global Summit in Dallas in April.
Penny Pritzker at the podium at the WTTC Global Summit in Dallas in April.

America's travel and tourism industry is on the rise. Representing $1.6 trillion in economic activity yearly, this sector of our economy supports more than 8.1 million U.S. jobs. One out of every eighteen Americans is employed by travel and tourism-related businesses, the overwhelmingly majority of which are classified as small firms. In fact, more people are employed by travel and tourism-related industries than are employed collectively in the construction industry, finance and insurance industries, agriculture, and education.

Penny Pritzker
Penny Pritzker

National Travel and Tourism Week is a chance to celebrate what the travel and tourism industry means to our country and our economy. It is an opportunity to take stock of the progress we have made since president Obama entered office and tasked the departments of Commerce and Interior with developing the first-ever National Travel and Tourism Strategy, which established the goal of attracting and welcoming 100 million international visitors to the United States annually by 2021.

In addition, this is a week to celebrate the milestones we have achieved in reducing the barriers to visiting the United States, making our country a more attractive destination for international visitors. Over the last several years, we have reduced visa wait times from more than 100 days to less than five in key markets such as China and Brazil; we have expanded Trusted Traveler programs like Global Entry; and we have extended visa validity with China from one to 10 years, leading to a 53% increase in visa demand in the first year alone. An estimated 75.3 million people from around the world visited the United States in 2015, up 37% since 2009, making travel and tourism the United States' number one services export.

In order to build upon this impressive progress, we must continue to address challenges facing the travel and tourism industry in the United States, especially in an ever-evolving security environment. The Visa Waiver Program, which supports the efficient and secure visa-free movement of travelers across 38 partner countries, is of foremost concern. Travelers from Visa Waiver Program countries represent 60% of overseas visitors to the United States, contributing significantly to our economy.

However, given changes in the security landscape, it is clear that this program will have to adjust quickly if it is to remain effective. We must develop international systems to share data, including passenger name records, so that we can expedite processing of known and trusted travelers. We must ensure that our governments are taking advantage of systems already in place, such as checking documents against Interpol's lost and stolen passport records.  These changes are important not only to the Visa Waiver Program but also to making legitimate travel as smooth and efficient as possible across all nations.

In just three short years since launching the National Travel and Tourism Strategy, our progress has been remarkable. International travelers visit the United States to see big cities like New York, where you can ride a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, take a walk through Central Park and enjoy a Broadway show, all in one day.

People come to America to hike the California Coast, where you can find bonsai trees living in the shadows of the giant redwoods, a phenomenon that does not exist anywhere else on the planet.

People come to America to see some of the best art and culture in the world, from the world-renowned art collection at the Chicago Institute of Art to the back lots of Hollywood to the Crystal Bridges Art Museum in Bentonville, Ark., one of the hottest new museums in the country.

Our country's diverse array of uniquely American experiences can stand up to any destination anywhere in the world, but we cannot take either our experiences or our visitors for granted. We must stay focused on continually improving the visitor experience to attract new and repeat travelers. Our administration remains committed to keeping America's shores "open for business."

Penny Pritzker is the secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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