The recent progress report from the White House outlining the Obama administration's efforts to stimulate inbound tourism got us to thinking that now is a good time, as we enter the year's fourth quarter, to think about how things are progressing in the Nation's Capital overall.

Leaving aside the increasing craziness of the political campaigns, we think there are several encouraging signs.

In terms of the administration's newly adopted tourism goals, it's notable that wait times for a U.S. visa in Brazil are now measured in days rather than months. That alone is worth a round of applause.

It had been a source of frustration that the Obama administration, like so many before it, didn't seem to fully appreciate the leverage that tourism could have on the economy.

As industry officials keep reminding the government and the media, tourism is the nation's leading service export and is an enormously effective generator of jobs, tax receipts and foreign exchange.

The rollout of tourism policy goals in January was a sign that Washington finally "gets it." This progress report suggests that, this time around, maybe Washington can hold that thought, too.

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We all want the government to understand the hospitality and travel business, and one way it manages to do that is through the Economic Census, a measure of American business activity undertaken every five years.

The next one will be under way in November, asking more than 4 million U.S. businesses to fill out Economic Census forms. The most recent government data about the nation's travel agencies, their number, their annual sales and total employment is from 2007.

In other words, the travel business is looking at an opportunity to enlighten the government on what's been happening. If you want the government to understand what's happening, answer the questions.

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report, requested by the Senate Commerce Committee, about how airlines use their slots at congested and slot-controlled airports such as New York's LaGuardia or Washington's Reagan National.

It turns out that at these airports where slots are rationed and allocated, airlines underutilize their slots. According to the GAO, flights using these slots tend to operate with smaller aircraft and lower load factors -- almost as if airlines were "hoarding" them, to keep them out of the hands of competitors. The GAO suggested that tougher, "use it or lose it" rules would lead to more efficient slot use. We've been saying that for years, so we consider it a sign of progress that the GAO is saying it, too.

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Amtrak just closed out its fiscal year, and if recent projections prove out, FY 2012 will have been an extraordinary year. Not only is Amtrak anticipating record ridership of more than 31 million passengers, but through August, it has posted monthly ridership records for 11 consecutive months, with the best January on record, the best February, the best March, etc.

This is not happening by accident. As most sensible travel people already know, rail travel makes sense, and the better it is, the more sense it makes. After 41 years of ups and downs, Amtrak is not only making progress but gathering some momentum. We're glad to see it.

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