By CB Online Staff
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
The big increase in the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba represents a
challenge for Puerto Rico, which draws the bulk of its tourists from the
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 month 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 hundreds of thousands of Cubans living in the
U.S. who come home to visit family annually.
President Barack 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 some $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
individuals in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration,
according to Treasury Department records.
"That would in itself encourage people who might travel to Cuba without
a license," Guild said. "And under Obama, nobody would expect him to do
anything worse than Bush was doing."
The increase in American travelers roughly corresponds with a 30 percent
rise in licensed excursions, for research, long-term academic study and
religious trips, that Guild's company handled from 2009 to 2010. But he
cautioned that the numbers involved are still relatively small.
Still, the easing of U.S. travel to Cuba is already raising red flags in
Puerto Rico, which relies heavily on visitors from the mainland to fuel
its tourism industry, which represents nearly 7 percent of the island GDP.
Earlier this year, U.S. Customs & Border Protection officials announced
that San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport has been given
federal permission to schedule charter flights to and from Cuba.
Cuban officials have said privately they expect as many as 500,000
visitors to begin arriving from the United States annually.
Cuba's statistics office also reported that the number of hotel rooms on
the island increased 17 percent over the last four years, rising to
65,000 last year from 56,000 in 2007.
Occupancy rates dropped slightly from 60 percent to 57 percent over the
period, it said.