President Barack Obama wants to make it easier for foreigners to visit the United States so they can come and spend more money at tourist sites. The president visited the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown Thursday, where he pitched tourism as an economic asset.
Cooperstown Bats is a store that has a symbiotic relationship with the National Baseball Hall of Fame across the street. Thursday morning, a high school baseball team was in town for a game at the hall’s Doubleday Field, but the players bought some souvenir bats first.
Business is steady for owner Connie Haney, thanks to internet sales, but most places in town rely on the busy summer tourist season.
"They live and die by the sheer numbers of people in the village," she said. "So that’s important for us to have people in the village."
Haney made a special bat for the president; on the off-chance he took a stroll down Cooperstown’s small Main Street.
"We have the red and white stripes on the barrel; the navy handle with stars. It has the number 44 at the end of the barrel, his signature, and ‘President of the United States of America,'” she explained.
He didn’t take that stroll.
Haney says she’ll find a way to get the bat to the president. But had he made it down to the business district, Obama would have seen it’s just as baseball-themed as the hall of fame.
Jennifer Howard owns Cooperstown Classics souvenir shop. She says the next three months of summer are their busy season. And she hopes the president’s visit will make it even busier.
"We love Cooperstown and we hope people come to visit. And we hope everybody enjoys having the president here today," she said. "I know we’re excited about it and hopefully it will generate some more tourism for our area and every area that he visits."
Only 2,000 people live in Cooperstown. But each year it welcomes almost 300,000 baseball fans and players. They sustain hundreds of jobs – 200 at the hall alone in the summer months.
Visits to the hall have slackened off recently. It’s down 35,000 in the past five years. But Obama picked the hall as a place to highlight his plans for growing the tourism industry nationally.
Tourism as an export
The president flew into Cooperstown late Thursday afternoon. The half of fame was closed for the event, much to the chagrin of some of those precious visitors to Cooperstown.
He got a tour of the nation’s oldest sports museum, handling the ball William Howard Taft used for the original presidential first pitch in 1910.
And he brought his own piece of baseball history to donate to the museum, the Chicago White Sox jacket he wore to throw out the first pitch at the 2009 All Star Game.
Then the president entered the plaque gallery, where baseball’s greats are enshrined. He told 150 tourism officials and museum staff that the jobs their industry creates, can’t be shipped overseas.
"And obviously, it’s tough to ship the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon overseas, you can’t do it," he said. "When it comes to tourism, the good news is we’ve got a great product to sell. People want to come here."
The president says he’s putting an emphasis on tourism during his declared ‘Year of Action,’ as the sector becomes an increasingly large part of the nation’s export economy.
"Last year alone, travel and tourism were responsible for $1.5 trillion in economic activity across the country. Think about that -- $1.5 trillion supporting nearly 8 million jobs in communities like this one," Obama said.
"And when tourists come from other countries and spend money here, that’s actually considered a type of export. We don’t always think about it that way, but we should."
Obama wants to increase the number of foreign visitors coming to the U.S. to 100 million by the start of the next decade. That’s an increase of 30 million people.
He's ordered the nation's busiest airports to continue to speed up entry times for tourists.
Also in the crowd was Henry Wager. He wrote a 5th grade class essay on Obama. His mother sent it to the White House and he got an invite to the event.
"I am speechless," he said. "It’s great to just even see him at this here. It’s great he came to Cooperstown too."
It’s the baseball half of fame’s 75th anniversary and Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson says visits are already up 64 percent this spring over last year. He says they don’t get many foreign visitors right now, but he notes there are more foreign players in baseball now.
"So I think what you’re going to see over time, maybe as soon as the immediate future, is a lot of international players inducted in the hall of fame and that’s when you’re going to see those numbers increase," he said.
During his tour, Obama read aloud part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s letter declaring baseball would continue on during World War II. Cooperstown certainly wants baseball to continue too.