By Mark Felsenthal
COOPERSTOWN, New York (Reuters) - President Barack Obama made a pitch for U.S. tourism - and slipped in a tour of his own - during a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Thursday, part of his efforts to boost U.S. economic growth.
Obama cradled Babe Ruth's yellowed bat in his hands, a look of wonder on his face, and checked out a jersey worn by Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the major leagues.
"How about that!" he said as he picked up a glove used by Joe DiMaggio.
Obama, an ardent Chicago White Sox fan, encouraged people to visit the museum, which drew just over 250,000 visitors in 2013 from around the world to the picturesque Cooperstown in the upper New York State countryside.
The president called baseball a unique part of U.S. heritage and urged fans of the game to visit the museum. He called the museum a "powerful economic engine" for upstate New York.
"When visitors come here, they don't just check out the hall. They rent cars, they stay in hotels, they eat in restaurants," Obama said.
Obama said visits by foreign tourists have rebounded since travel was hit hard by the September 11, 2001, attacks.
But there is still opportunity for growth. Earlier on Thursday, Obama met with executives from tourism-related companies at the White House who said U.S. airports can be unwelcoming places for foreign visitors.
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 immigration operations at 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, Chizu Nomiyama and Ken Wills)