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Obama to pitch U.S. tourism at Baseball Hall of Fame

U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) walks with White House counselor John Podesta (C) as they were surrounded by agents of the U.S. Secret S
U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) walks with White House counselor John Podesta (C) as they were surrounded by agents of the U.S. Secret S

By Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will make a pitch for U.S. tourism at a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Thursday as part of his efforts to provide a boost for U.S. economic growth.

After meeting with the executives of tourism-related companies in Washington, the president was scheduled to travel to the institution in Cooperstown, New York, which celebrates baseball greats like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle and men with nicknames such as "Old Hoss," "Dizzy," and "Country."

The museum, which drew just over 250,000 visitors in 2013, was picked for the event because it draws tourists from around the world, officials said.

The president is aiming to draw attention to efforts to boost growth by making it easier for foreign visitors to spend money in the United States.

But he may have a hard time diverting attention from a flaring controversy over alleged neglect of veterans' healthcare that could cost Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki his job. Obama has dispatched one of his inner circle, Rob Nabors, to investigate charges that long wait times for veterans seeking medical treatment could have led to some deaths.

The government has done a good job marketing the United States to travelers and cutting wait times for visas for tourists from China, tourism CEOs told reporters after meeting with Obama.

But the government needs to do more to make the experience of landing in the country and going through customs and immigration more pleasant, they said.

"We've done research on arriving travelers, and about 40 percent say that they will tell folks in their own country, based on their arrival experience, not to come," said Arne Sorenson, chief executive of Marriott International.

"It's not just about how long the line is, but it's about the experience itself," said John Sprouls, chief administrative officer of Universal Parks and Resorts.

Obama issued a presidential memorandum on Thursday directing the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security to reduce wait times for international travelers when they arrive at the 15 largest airports in the country.

Administration officials told reporters that Dallas-Ft. Worth and Chicago O'Hare airports have been able to cut average wait times by 40 percent to an average of 15 minutes through automated passport kiosks and better signage, officials said.

Each international visitor spends on average $4,500 per visit, and the number of visitors has grown to 70 million in 2013 from 55 million in 2009, the White House said. Those visitors spent $180.7 billion, and the travel and tourism industry overall supported 8 million jobs, the administration said.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Chizu Nomiyama)

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