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BEIJING — After serving two and a half years as U.S. Ambassador to China, I find our two countries’ relationship is thriving on many fronts, despite the challenges we continue to face.

Growing trade and investment across the Pacific benefit both of our peoples, and together the United States and China are working to address some of the world’s most challenging issues. Yet the accomplishment of which I am proudest is expanding people-to-people interaction by getting more Chinese to visit the United States and see firsthand what makes our nation great. Chinese visitors are pleasantly surprised by what they see in the United States, and that bodes well for the future of our relationship.

When I arrived in Beijing in 2011, a typical Chinese businessperson, tourist or student had to wait 70 to 100 days for a visa interview. Often he or she would opt to travel to other countries to avoid such a hassle. If a Chinese businessperson wanting to go to the United States to buy machinery from a company in Ohio had to wait more than 70 days for a visa, he’d probably say, “Forget it! I can easily travel to Germany and buy a similar product.” If a Chinese family wanting to visit the Grand Canyon or Disneyland had to wait months for a visa interview, they’d probably say, “Let’s vacation in Europe instead.” So, the long delays in securing an interview were hurting American businesses and costing American jobs.

My priority was to streamline our processes and dramatically reduce the average wait time. As a result, the U.S. Mission in China now processes more than 1.3 million visa applications a year, up 70 percent from two years ago. Almost 1.5 million Chinese now travel to the United States annually.

The economic benefit to the United States is clear. The flood of visitors helps account for the recent dramatic rise in our nation’s travel and tourism revenues. The typical Chinese tourist is not on a tight budget, spending on average $6,500 per visitor to the United States. They buy designer clothes on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills; they line up for all the fun at Epcot Center in Florida; they purchase tickets to NBA games in Houston; and they check out the fresh salmon at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. This puts money in the pockets of hotel and restaurant workers, department store clerks — and taxi drivers — around the country.

For example, Chinese visitors contributed $8.8 billion to the U.S. economy in 2012 and have added more than $31 billion in annual travel and tourism revenues to our economy since Chinese group leisure travel to the U.S. began in earnest in 2007. This economic boost from Chinese visitors supported the creation of about 30,000 U.S. travel and tourism jobs in 2012 alone. Continuing to welcome Chinese citizens is crucial to encouraging investment, realizing the tremendous economic opportunities created by additional Chinese visitors, and expanding people-to-people exchanges — including a record number of Chinese students at U.S. universities and colleges.

The streamlined visa process also makes it easier for Chinese investors to travel to America to learn about projects and to meet potential partners. It is no coincidence that in the last two years, Chinese investment in the United States has totaled $21 billion, exceeding the investment of the previous 11 years combined.

But the true value of these Chinese visitors is not best measured in dollars and cents. These visits help disprove the negative view of the United States often portrayed in Chinese textbooks and by official media. Many Chinese travelers upon returning home have told me they were deeply impressed by the beauty of the land, the cleanliness of our cities, the friendliness of our people and the safety of our streets.

In 2004, then-Harvard University President Larry Summers alerted then-Secretary of State Colin Powell that the difficulty of obtaining student visas hurt our ability to attract the next generation of foreign leaders to American educational institutions.

Summers said that the complicated visa process deprived promising scholars of the “incalculable benefits … from their extended exposure to our country and its democratic values,” including our freedoms of speech and religion, and our cultural and ethnic diversity. Not only does this exposure increase Chinese understanding of America, but it gets Chinese people thinking about how the rule of law and respect for civil rights can help them conquer problems they face today — environmental degradation, ethnic tension and corruption, to name a few — and successfully transition to a stable, innovative, modern society. Visiting America helps them realize what’s possible for the future of their own country and to push for further reform.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently said that diplomacy is based on political, economic and people-to-people relations, and that it was the people-to-people exchanges that were the most important.

Among the Chinese tourists, business travelers and students coming to America for both brief and extended stays will be China’s future leaders in politics, science, medicine, industry, civil society and other important fields. I can think of no better investment in the future of the U.S.-China relationship than to bring these people to America and directly expose them to the pluralistic society and democratic ideals that I have so proudly represented these past two and a half years.

For this reason, I head home from China optimistic about the long-term future of our relationship.

Gary Locke is the former U.S. Ambassador to China. He was Washington’s governor from 1997-2005 and was U.S. Secretary of Commerce from 2009-11.