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Visitors up, but Cuba’s tourism sector lagging

 

Peter Orsi, The Associated Press

 

HAVANA – Cuba is getting more visitors, including a 20 percent uptick in the number of Americans, but tourism income hasn’t recovered from the sharp downturn caused by the global financial crisis, new government statistics say.

 

Overall tourist arrivals rose 18 percent to 2.53 million last year from about 2.15 million in 2007, Cuba’s National Office of Statistics said in a report posted this week on its website.

 

Despite the gains, visitors are making shorter trips and spending less. Tourism revenue totaled $2.22 billion in 2010, slightly below the $2.24 billion of 2007.

 

The report did not explain the data, but Cuba’s tourism sector, a key source of income for the Caribbean island, has been hit hard by the world economic downturn.

 

According to the statistics office, the leading source of tourists last year was Canada, accounting for 945,000 visitors. Next came Britain at 174,000, Italy with 112,000 and Spain at 105,000.

 

The United States was the eighth-biggest source of travelers despite Washington’s decades-old ban on American tourism to the island. About 63,000 Americans visited last year, compared with 52,000 in 2009.

 

The figures include both U.S. citizens who came on trips approved by the U.S. Treasury Department and those who sneaked in through third countries, but exclude the many Cubans living in the U.S. who come home to visit family annually.

 

President Obama lifted restrictions on visits by Cuban-Americans in 2009, and earlier this year his administration issued new rules for non-Cuban Americans that are expected to cause a significant increase in educational and cultural exchanges.

 

Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters Inc., which operates charter flights to Cuba, said the U.S. government issued about $1 million in fines to about 1,000 Americans who traveled to Cuba illegally during the early part of the last decade. But, he said, it stopped going after people in the latter years of the Bush administration.