Tourism is big business. In fact, it is the largest industry in Los Angeles and employs approximately 400,000 people in Los Angeles County. If we want this number to grow here and throughout the United States, even to the tune of creating over 1 million jobs in the United States without spending any taxpayer money, then we really need to change the way we do business. And it all starts with increasing access to the number of overseas visitors.

Travel currently generates $1.8 trillion per year in economic output and employs nearly 7.4 million Americans directly in travel-related jobs. And the economic benefits of foreign tourism in the United States extend beyond the economic impact directly in the travel-related industry, such as hotels and airlines. A visiting Chinese delegation to a heavy machinery trade show can lead to millions (or even billions) of dollars in orders for Caterpillar, GE or other U.S. manufacturers. International travelers account for as much as 10 percent of retail sales at luxury boutiques.

In fact, Los Angeles welcomed more than 273,000 visitors from China alone in 2010, reflecting a 73 percent increase from 2009. But that number can at least be doubled. Chinese visitors spent $270 million in the Los Angeles basin in 2010. Tourists from mainland China spend an average of $6,800 per person per visit, frequenting L.A.-area attractions such as Universal Studios Hollywood, a broad range of retail shops from premium outlets to the chic boutiques of Rodeo Drive, and our cultural venues and restaurants. The list is endless.

Over the last decade, the number of travelers worldwide has increased by 60 million, but the number visiting the United States has not kept up with that growth. And our main competition for foreign travelers, such as England and France, are reaping the economic benefits.

Visa system

One of the biggest obstacles to increasing the number of foreign travelers is a burdensome U.S. visa system. In China, those who want to visit here often face waits of more than 145 days. There are only five consular offices capable of processing U.S. visas in all of China, yet there are 27 Chinese cities with populations greater than 2 million and no local access to obtaining a U.S. visa to visit. Would you wait 145 days for a visa?

According to research by the U.S. Travel Association, we can create 1.3 million jobs by 2020 and add $859 billion in economic output to the GDP if we can return to the share of the global long-haul travel market the United States had in 2000.

While the government and private sector struggle to create jobs and grow the economy both nationally and in California, smart visa reform could mean more jobs and economic growth in Los Angeles and other tourist destinations across the country. Let’s make sure that tourism continues to be one of our greatest exports, so we can all reap the economic benefits here at home.

Robert Amano is the executive director of the Hotel Association of Los Angeles. Mark S. Liberman is president and chief executive of LA Inc. Gary L. Toebben is president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

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