HAVANA The number of Americans visiting their country's long-time foe Cuba is steadily increasing under the Obama administration, according to Cuban government figures, with the highest number in years likely in 2011.
Some 63,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba in 2010, up from 52,500 the previous year and 41,900 in 2008, according to a report by the National Statistics Office (here).
U.S. citizens are forbidden from travelling to Cuba without their government's permission under a wide-ranging trade embargo against the island imposed nearly five decades ago.
In the years following Cuba's 1959 revolution the highest known number of U.S. visitors peaked at 70,000 under U.S. President Bill Clinton, then dropped to an average of 30,000 in the last term of U.S. President George W. Bush.
The 2010 numbers do not include 350,000 Cuban Americans estimated by travel providers and U.S. diplomats to have come to the island last year. Because Cuba considers them nationals, they are not listed in tourism statistics except within the broader category of "other."
In 2009, Obama gave Cuban Americans a green light to visit their homeland at will and in January loosened restrictions on Americans travelling to Cuba for professional, religious and humanitarian reasons.
The combined figures of U.S. travellers and Cuban Americans made the United States Cuba's second-largest tourism provider after Canada.
Before the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power, Cuba used to be an American playground, with hundreds of thousands of Americans visiting to gamble and have a good time.
But since the early 1960s, few have made the trip due to a general travel ban imposed by a U.S. trade embargo against the island.
LOOSENING OF RESTRICTIONS
The current rise in U.S. visitors is a result of the Obama administration loosening travel restrictions to Cuba to encourage more "people to people" contact in hopes of aiding political change on the communist-ruled island 90 miles (145 km) from Florida.
As well as allowing Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba freely, Obama also authorized the issuing of licenses to more Cuba travel providers and allowed more airports to give charter service between the two countries.
Travel providers report they are swamped, despite delays in implementing the measures, and forecast more than 100,000 Americans not of Cuban descent will come to the forbidden island this year.
"In 2010, Marazul sent over 3,500 people to Cuba for academic, professional, religious and humanitarian reasons, as well as performing arts and sports groups," said Bob Guild, vice president of Miami-based Marazul Charters.
"This year, we have already sent close to this number and, if the new people to people educational licenses begin to be issued soon by the Treasury Department, we project more than 10,000 people in 2011 travelling through Marazul under the new revised legal categories, not including people visiting their families," he said.
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.
According to official figures, overall tourism was up 11.3 percent through May, compared with the same period last year.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Cynthia Osterman)