Cuban tourism up 10.6 percent, U.S. travel stable

HAVANA Fri Jul 29, 2011 3:09pm EDT

A man looks for customers on his tricycle taxi in Havana July 28, 2011. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

A man looks for customers on his tricycle taxi in Havana July 28, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Desmond Boylan

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HAVANA (Reuters) - The Cuban tourism industry performed strongly through June as arrivals from just about all travel providers increased and the number of U.S. visitors was stable, according to a government report released on Friday.

Tourist arrivals during the first half of the year were 1.538 million, up 10.6 percent over the same period in 2010, the National Statistics Office reported on its website (http:www.one.cu).

The 148,000 additional arrivals included just 30,000 in the "other" category where Cuban American and U.S. citizens not of Cuban origin are included.

Cuba has said it had 2.53 million tourists in 2010, with Canada the largest provider at nearly 945,000, followed by Britain at 174,000 and Italy at 112,000.

Tourism is one of Cuba's most important earners of foreign exchange, with revenues of $2.2 billion last year, and an important provider of jobs.

U.S. President Barack Obama lifted all restrictions on Cuban American travel to the island in 2009, resulting in a big jump in arrivals in 2010. That appears to have leveled off this year.

According to industry insiders 375,500 Cubans residing abroad visited in 2010, compared with 296,000 in 2009, with most of the increase attributed to Cuban Americans.

The number of U.S. citizens visiting their government's long-time ideological foe also increased last year by 20 percent, reaching 63,000, according to Cuban government statistics.

The Obama administration earlier this year significantly loosened travel restrictions for non-Cuban Americans visiting for academic, religious and other professional reasons, authorized the issuing of licenses to more Cuba travel providers and allowed more airports to give charter service between the two countries.

The new regulations are now kicking in and are expected to result in a significant increase in U.S. travel to the country for the remainder of the year.

Travel providers report they are swamped and forecast more than 100,000 Americans not of Cuban descent will come to the island this year.

The increase in U.S. travel to the country, which remains under stiff U.S. sanctions and a ban on tourism-related visits, has provoked the ire of Cuban American lawmakers. They have introduced legislation that would roll back Cuban American visits to once every three years and more strictly enforce other travel to the country.

The lawmakers argue that the Obama administration is helping to prop up the Cuban government, while the White House counters more people-to-people contact is the best way to undermine the island's Communist authorities.

(Editing by Jane Sutton and Chris Wilson)

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