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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More people from around the world are holding court with Disney World princesses and pondering the Grand Canyon's depths this year, all the while boosting the U.S. economy, according to a White House report released on Wednesday that found international tourism to the United States is growing.
The number of international visitors to the United States rose 10 percent in the first three months of 2012 from the same period in 2011, the report found, which estimated that demand for tourist visas would grow almost 19 percent this year from last.
"The demand in travel to the United States, whether it's leisure or to buy things, has always been there. What hasn't been there in recent years was a process that made the United States attractive," said Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer at U.S. Travel Association, which represents the travel industry.
He said security policies put in place after the September 11 attacks in 2001 had made traveling to the United States more complicated and recent changes have led directly to more international visitors.
Last January, President Barack Obama ordered the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to streamline applications for tourist visas, build up consulates' capabilities to handle visa requests, and increase efficiency in customs, with special attention given to China and Brazil.
Obama, bidding for reelection in November, is trying to lower a national unemployment rate stuck above 8 percent for 43 straight months and has turned to tourism to create jobs. Ultimately, the United States is aiming to attract 100 million visitors annually by 2021.
A little more than 7.5 million Americans hold tourism-related jobs, and the sector offers promise for growth. In July, the amount spent by foreign travelers rose by $30 million from June to $13.7 billion, the Commerce Department said last week.
"Tourism is a bright spot in our economy," Danielle Gray, deputy director of the National Economic Council, said on a call with reporters. "While we've made a lot of progress, we know there's more work that needs to be done to capitalize on a rising global middle class and emerging economies."
Demand from Brazil for tourist and short-term business visas rose 38 percent in the first six months of 2012 from the first half of 2011, and by 48 percent in China, said the report, which added that visits to the United States from China could nearly triple by 2016.
According to the White House, 88 percent of tourism visa applicants worldwide are currently interviewed within three weeks of submitting their applications. In Brazil, where people once waited 140 days for interviews, wait times have been whittled down to two days, and in China they average five days.
The United States is expanding its consulates in those countries to accommodate a surge in interest. It is also consulting with industrial engineers from Disney Worldwide Services on queuing and "ways to improve the applicant experience," the report said.
Beyond Brazil and China, a growing number of Argentinians wanting to reap the benefits of their growing economy and relatively inexpensive U.S. shopping are getting non-immigrant visas, the report said, while visits from Indian nationals will likely grow by more than 30 percent over the next five years.
Canada and Mexico continue to provide the bulk of travel-related revenue to the United States, the report said. In Canada, new baggage-check technology will allow travelers to clear security faster for U.S.-bound flights, while the United States is building infrastructure for speedier car crossings along the Mexican border.
Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by David Brunnstrom